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America's Imaginative Life: Are There Reflections of Bushite America?

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It is often said that artists pick up on the underlying realities of their era, and that in their works one can find manifestations of what's happening in a society below the awareness of people generally. Sometimes the awareness of the artist is at a conscious level, but sometimes also-- according to this way of thinking-- what the artist manifests in his/her work are realities beneath the conscious knowledge not only of the wider society but even of the artist him/herself.

One famous example of this comes from the realm of painting during the later years of the Weimar period in Germany during the late 20s and early 30s. Later critics have believed that visible in many of these paintings are premonitions of the nightmare of destruction soon to descend on that country.

In the late 90s, I was struck by how often the movies of that decade depicted the destruction of major American buildings and cities. (Think, for example of Independence Day, though there were many other instances-- Armegeddon, Deep Impact, etc..) Maybe, I thought at the time, it was just the development of new digital technologies that made it possible to create such arresting images. Or maybe something else was going on.

That striking motif in the films of the 90s came back to my mind in September, 2001, when the whole nation watched --horror-struck, awe-struck, struggling to realize it was not just a movie-- as two of the most famous and substantial buildings in America collapsed into rubble on national TV. Was there some connection, I wondered, between the images in the films of the previous decade, and what had then actually happened in New York?

Another link between the world of film and the deeper movements in American consciousness may be visible today in recent blockbusters.

I am not the only one who believes it's more than coincidence that George Lucas portrayed, in the final installment of this recent Star Wars series, a leader who uses war to arrogate unchecked power unto himself. If I recall, Lucas has denied any connection between his film and contemporary events in America, and I suppose it is possible that he was sincere in his denial. But I doubt that, and even if he were sincere, I expect that at least unconsciously the connection was there: the leader has used lies, and created a war that is not what it is made to appear to be, in order to remove the constitutional limits to his power and to create an imperial dictatorship. Gee, have we ever seen anything like that in the real world?

More interesting to me is the recent return of Tolkien's world of The Lord of the Rings to capture the world's imagination. In this epic fantasy, Tolkien creates a drama in which the modest but heroic forces of goodness and decency battle the amassed and dominating forces of evil.

It is generally recognized that it was not mere coincidence that Tolkien wrote this drama about the struggle between good and evil at a time when fascist forces were taking hold in Europe, and when historical events were in fact laying the stage for the greatest battle in the history of humankind, a struggle that --more than most human wars-- could be seen as one against the forces of darkness.

And I suspect it is not coincidence that this fantasy became in the past few years a global phenomenon, just as fascistic forces have been seizing hold of the world's dominant nation, the country that --only a few years ago-- could plausibly be called "the world's indispensable nation."

Our imaginative life affords us a way of confronting issues that people may not feel prepared to confront directly. It can help us prepare to meet challenges that lie ahead.

In that context, I would like to think that there may be millions of movie-goers who learned from The Lord of the Rings saga the lesson that even Hobbits --i.e. little people, who have no great eagerness for battle or for heroics, who like nothing better than to live their own comfortable, decent, bourgeois lives-- have it in them to rise up and confront and defeat the awesome and repellant power of entrenched and organized evil.

Postscript: The imaginative life also allows people to face fears through fantasies that they might not be prepared to face directly. In this context, I think also of Steven Spielberg's recent very frightening blockbuster-- The War of the Worlds.

Recall how The War of the Worlds became news once before in history-- when, for thousands of listeners, Orson Wells radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' story leaked out of fantasy and became a mass nightmare. So realistic was the broadcast that listeners did not realize that it was just a fantasy and believed that the invasion by these killer Martians was actually occurring.

But it likely was not just the realism of the broadcast that explains the panic that seized those listeners. It is likely no coincidence that this mass hysteria over a radio broadcast occurred on the eve of world war.

And I'm wondering if it is also no coincidence that this story of mass destruction by mechanized and ruthless invaders has been resurrected in our imaginative life at this moment in our history, when all our truly humane and life-affirming values are under assault from a ruthless set of forces that have coalesced and risen to power in America.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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