It is as American as apple pie.
Not simply “conflict”, which has shaped the human world since it’s inception, and which has engaged all of humanity in all it’s endeavors, ranging from the spiritual to the emotional to the material worlds.
Not simply “conflict”, which we Americans have embraced as the cradle and sustenance of liberty.
Decked out with an exclamation point that bespeaks our craving for excitement.
An excitement that tolerates no nuance, and that is best served hot, short, sweet and simple.
Witness our twin passions for cartoons and melodrama.
Roadrunner and Coyote! The Incredibles! The mustached villain! J. R. Ewing! The latest action-adventure flick!
Ah, the grand, overly-simplified and heavily-caricatured battles between good and evil!
Who does it best?
I vote for animation, where entire personalities can be reduced to a few simple lines.
Hot, short, sweet and simple.
Blameworthy in itself?
Only to the snottiest elitist, whose impoverished vision cannot discern the difference between art and entertainment.
Blameworthy by application?
When a toon-vision attempts to solve the problems of the world.
Many years ago, I learned a valuable lesson.
Art and entertainment should never be judged by each other’s standards.
Entertainment can be artistic, but it should never pretend to be simply art; art can be entertaining, but it should never pretend to be simply entertainment.
Carried to extremes, the results are likely to be clumsy and boring.
And if pure entertainment cannot assail the walls of art, how can it assail the walls of politics?
Yet, like the ill-begotten hot-rod that I described in January, which was required to do more than it was designed to do, entertainment has been expected to tackle matters of national and global significance.
In bygone days, nations charged their greatest heroes with leading the battles.
In our day, all too often, we charge our greatest caricatures with leading the battles.
If you are a conservative, do you not see the liberal spokespersons as caricatures?
If you are a liberal, do you not see the conservative spokespersons as caricatures?
I am not cynical with regard to the government or the media; I know that in both arenas there are leaders and prominent figures who speak words of reason and balance.
Yet, all too often, their voices are overwhelmed by persons who seem to delight in performing as caricatures, whether for the purpose of advancing their causes, their careers or their wallets, and who take endless delight in mockingly presenting their opponents as caricatures.
Caricatures. Just like themselves.
Knowing that they can count on us, who, like our parents and children, share a passion for toons.
Yet, beyond these Mickey Mouse wannabees, there may be a more pressing concern that is in need of redress.
For they would have no audience if we did not buy into “toon-think”.
The problem rests not with them alone, but with their listeners.
Beyond the rabid debates of the talking heads, it could be argued that now, more than ever in recent decades, liberals and conservatives are thinking of each other as caricatures.
Personally speaking, I cannot think of a time since the sixties when each has so utterly regarded the other as a force of destruction.
In no more recent times has each so utterly regarded the other as “the other”.
In no more recent times has there been a more pristine “us/them” way of thinking.
A way of thinking that is fed by our love of overly-simplified conflict.
A way of thinking that bespeaks our love of toons.
For many of us who lived through the sixties, this is setting off alarm bells.
For the sixties were a time of painful division.
Divisions that were never reconciled in any satisfactory way.
These divisions may be surfacing yet again, in our times, like a family dysfunction that needs must surface over and over again, like the gothic ghost or the Greek curse, until the ancient conflict is resolved.
As the rhetoric heats up on foreign wars, racism and torture, I suspect that our attention is being drawn back to the sixties.
The same may be said of any conflict that we have reduced to caricature.
All British are…All Americans are…All Northerners are…All Southerners are…All Blacks are…All Whites are…All Christians are…All Jews are…All Men are…All Women are…All East Asians are…All Germans are…All Hispanics are…
Animosities that fade with the death of each succeeding generation, but which have never been fully addressed, and so slumber, waiting an opportunity to wake again…
For caricature burns deeper than issues.
Our seeing each other as caricatures betrays a conflict that can never be resolved by the tools of Conflict!
It is time for us to put away the tools of an entertainment pastime.
It is time for us to put away childish things, as one conservative commentator recently admonished her peers.
Given the mission of this website, some readers may be surprised that I would quote the words of the culturally-conservative Peggy Noonan, even if she was quoting the words of Paul.
Yet she seized the high ground.
Deflating, yet again, in one small way, on one particular issue, our juvenile vision of black and white, our obsessive concern with oversimplification, our reliance on melodrama and toons to inform our vision…
Oooh, folks on both sides of the aisle will hate what she did, whether out of self-righteousness or jealousy…
…by recalling he who was the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; he who had no room in his never-ending, all-encompassing vision for an “us/them” way of thinking.
Entertainment for young and old alike.
But hardly up to the task of handling weighty matters.
Far better to begin with a sense of rightfully-earned humility.
Far better to end with some resolution of unfinished business.
Far better to begin and end, pray God, with spokespersons and “opponents” who are more than caricatures of our own imaginings.
On June 5, 2009, three figures stood together before the memorial at the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Angela Merkel, Barack Obama and Elie Wiesel.
Known by some as unique individuals in their own right.
Known by some as leaders of international renown.
Known by some as representatives of both multitudes and distances traveled; and so this was a moment worthy of great words, yes, but also of complex connections and meditations that go beyond words.
Known by some as representatives of peoples who have been caricatured to devastating effect within the past several decades.
Each, regarded with total contempt by diverse groups.
I have no doubt that their moment together was, for some, a source of great humor.
Consider the picture.
Reduced to caricature.
Can you not hear the dark laughter?
I post new articles twice-monthly in “Author’s Corner”.
If you live in or near the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and you would be interested in meeting with others for discussion and/or prayer, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome, regardless of personal identity or choices. Please understand that I do not have the resources to guarantee that I will be able to read or respond to all other correspondence.
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*The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2009
Rob Wright holds advanced degrees in education and performing arts, and he has been a professional teacher for over sixteen years. In his home denomination, he has served as a lay minister in liturgical, educational and ecumenical activities. He lives in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire with his spouse of twenty years and their daughter.