May 15, 2010
We love a good tragedy, those stories in which the hero’s journey ends in the hero’s death or destruction by some trait in his own character that, under the circumstances of the journey, push him or her to ruin. Aristotle called this trait the hamartia, the tragic error, the miscalculation in judgment that leads to the hero’s downfall. Some have seen the trait as a character defect, a moral flaw that inexorably led to that downfall. R. J. Dorius called it the fatal virtue, the trait that, in the circumstances of the story, brings the hero to ruin, but under different circumstances would have served him well.
Over the last few years, I’ve been wondering, as both as an American and a writer, whether the future history of 21st century America and, possibly the world because of us, will be written as a tragedy. Many of my fellow doomers see it as a certainty. I think there’s the slimmest of chances that it’s still only a possibility.
How might those future historians write the story? It depends, I suspect, on how they define our hamartia. Will they see it as a moral flaw – greed and hubris at the highest levels of government and corporate power or, perhaps, apathy toward that greed and hubris at the level of the citizenry – that led inevitably to our downfall and doom? Maybe they’ll define it as the tragic error or fatal virtue – our beliefs that constant growth is not only possible in a world of finite resources, but good; that “the national interest” is synonymous with “the good of the people” (whether our own people or the other people of the world) and that spreading democracy, even at the point of a gun, is a righteous endeavor. Virtues that under different circumstances might have served us well.
Frankly, the possibility for the second definition doesn’t look good.
As to the growth is good meme, a UN report released in 2006 showed that in 2000, the US accounted for 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but 32.6 percent of the world’s wealth. Well, didn’t we “earn” that wealth? Not exactly. Other studies show that we 5 percent use 25 percent of the world’s oil and 60 percent of the world’s resources to obtain that wealth, often with no concern for the social, economic or environmental costs to the people who actually live on top of those resources.
But it’s “in our national interest”; it’s “for the good of our people”. Mmm, again, not exactly. In 2007, the top one percent of Americans owned nearly 40 percent of the wealth in this country. The top 20 percent owned 85 percent of the wealth.
Well, at least we’re generous with that wealth when it comes to the poor nations. Nope. Individual Americans give generously when disasters strike – at home or around the world – (and, oddly enough, studies show, poorer Americans more so than the wealthiest). As the world’s largest economy, though, this nation gives only one tenth of one percent of its GDP in foreign aid. Much of that either comes with strings attached that benefit our big corporations or doesn’t reach the poorest of the poor at all, due to collusion with their own corrupt governments.
What about our spreading democracy around the world? Doesn’t that count as a virtue? Sadly, too often what we’ve spread is capitalism – corporate or disaster capitalism, at that. And, I dare say, tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis who’ve lost innocent loved ones or had their lives and livelihoods destroyed, would not consider what we’ve spread across their countries democracy of any kind.
In every good story, there is something the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis – that moment of reflection where the hero realizes that he has “brought this on himself”. In drama, this moment of insight changes the direction of the hero’s journey and leads him out of what seems to be certain doom to a more charitable ending. In the tragedy, the trajectory has been determined from the beginning, the hero’s doom ordained, though the insight may mitigate that doom somewhat.
Right now, I don’t see a lot of reflection, genuine soul-searching, going on in the United States, in spite of the mess we’re in. The big financial institutions that largely caused the economic disaster are still busy saying, “How could we have known?” or laying the blame on “willing dupes” who bought the mortgages and the securities they put together from them. The CEOs of the three companies who were responsible for the oilrig explosion in the gulf, last month, and the long-term damage it may do to the economy and environment, put on a despicable display of finger pointing before Congress the other day, in an effort to avoid any self-reflection and to mitigate the financial costs they will accrue. Congress and the Executive seem powerless to resist the flow of big money from corporate and financial interests long enough to rein them in or shut the revolving door between them. Even the judicial system, more and more, seems to tips the scales of justice toward those big interests and away from ordinary people.
And we ordinary people – caught between the political propaganda of the right/left and the media that serves it, the constant barrage of corporate advertising and self-serving promotions – seem more determined to fight each other than to look honestly at our own role as willing consumers and then, demand better of ourselves, our government and our business and financial sectors.
Can we still bring forth our moment of national anagnorisis? If so, is there time for that reflection to change the trajectory of our story or is our fate already determined except for what small mitigations of the coming doom reflection may afford us?
As a writer, used to controlling both the characters and the bent of the story, it’s hard for me to look around at the unfolding story of our current reality and accept the rapidly widening chance that our story will not be drama, but tragedy. And such a tragedy, at that.