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The Mess We’re In: The Challenge of Melodramocracy

Stories are impossible, but it’s impossible to live without them. That’s the mess I’m in.

–Filmmaker Wim Wenders

Progressive storytellers looking to advance transformational change have a problem. The problem is melodrama, our culture’s dominant mode of story. A virtuous hero overcomes obstacles and saves an innocent victim from an evil villain. Melodrama is fundamentally conservative. It’s popular because it assures the fearful that Sam Cooke was wrong. A change isn’t gonna come.

All of us who try to advance progressive change by writing, talking to friends, making films or ads, appearing on television etc. need some understanding of the force of popular narrative in the public sphere. Our thoughts take narrative form, a form learned by our bodies’ movements in space and time. Next time you’re thirsty, note that the act of reaching for a glass of water and drinking has a beginning, middle and end. So does sex, and so does life itself. That’s how intimate we are with narrative.

When we want to engage others in the struggle for an egalitarian, popular democracy, we have to pay attention to the stories we tell. And we don’t get to tell these stories in a narrative vacuum. Our bodyminds are full of stories, from novels to films to religious celebrations to pop songs to family dramas. That’s why attention to popular culture is vital. But so many popular stories are melodramatic, over-simplified and reassuring tales of good and evil that you might say we live in a melodramocracy. As political scientist Elisabeth Anker says:

[Melodrama] is not merely a type of film or literary genre, but a pervasive cultural mode that structures the presentation of political discourse and national identity in contemporary America.

The Right is expert at exploiting the melodramatic habit. Look at the health care debate. In stories paid for by the insurance industry, innocent Americans are to be saved from evil, socialist President Snidely Obama by heroic and selfless Republican Dudley Do-Rights. Emancipating change becomes the enslaving rope Snidely uses to tie Little Nell to the railroad tracks.

Jeffrey Mason puts the fear of change this way in his book, Melodrama and the Myth of America:

If society can change, if it can evolve or transform into something new rather than experiencing restoration to its former condition, then it is possible for such change to leave the subject behind, rendering him marginal, rejected, and out of place. This is the fear of erasure or of displacement, of being cast aside and left alone.

In the Right’s recent “Mount Vernon Statement,” conservatives were explicitly melodramatic, warning Americans about the dangers of change:

Some insist that America must change, cast off the old and put on the new. But where would this lead — forward or backward, up or down? Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception?

The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles.

Conservatives promote change of a sort, call it restorative change. Progressives, on the other hand, see redemption not in the restoration of the past but in the realization of futures both wild and just.

Relying on the work of Anker, Harold W. Simons, Kenneth Burke and others, we can see three ways melodrama works against effective progressive gains.

Dividing the world into simplistic, melodramatic or Manichean models of good and evil is no way to advance an egalitarian society in a complex world of systemic and not direct or simple causation. However, it is a good way of promoting outrage. It’s no accident that blog posts about our evil opponents get the most attention and comments. And often, outrage is warranted. Bad people should be called bad. Scholars, from Burke to Anker, admit the paradox is difficult to resolve.

Second, if the very form of melodrama promotes conservative resistance to change, aren’t we moving one step forward and two steps back when we employ the form?

Lastly, Manichean melodrama can lead to bizarre outcomes that subvert progressive values. Michael Berube, in his book, The Left At War, writes:

For the Manichean left, as for the Manicheans of the early Christian era, there are two forces in the world, those of good and evil, and everyone and everything that is not on one side is on the other…if Israel is in the wrong, the Hezbollah must be in the right (and, as the Manichean-left slogan of the 2006 war in Lebanon had it, “we are all Hezbollah now”)…

How do we untie the progressive movement from the railroad tracks of melodrama?

First, we shouldn’t confuse melodrama and theatricality. We can tell moving stories without resorting to the simplified, melodramatic mode. Buddha did it. Martin Luther King, Jr. did it. Vaclav Havel did it. The historical Jesus did it. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did it. Open-ended parables that require creative interpretation provoke imagination. Honest analysis that recognizes our universal fallibility and the potential tragic consequences of all our endeavors can open minds and hearts to the new while making clear our mistakes of the past.

Second, both humor and humility can take the melodramatic steam out of necessary attacks on bad behavior that deserves the name “evil.” This is Kenneth Burke’s solution. Burkean Harold Simons mentions Jon Stewart as an example. We can be dramatic and entertaining without over-simplifying.

Lastly, we can do more than one thing at a time. One messenger can promote outrage while others take a humorous, humble, open and transformative approach that recognizes the future for what it is: uncertain, but full of promise.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith