Kings, Villains, and the Personage

I was re-reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles this week, and it occurred to me to wonder about an eternal country built on what amounted to a feudal system. The problem in any fictional work, of course, is that any system will have its flaws and so any form of government described will have failings which readers will discover and announce. Then again, some are better than others – J.K. Rowling is a very good writer, for example, but her attempt to create a believable magic world parallel to the mundane world we know falls on its face as soon as any critical thought is applied to the matter. Zelazny’s Amber and Chaos realms function relatively well as monarchies, even if that include byzantine rules and Machiavellian conspiracies. The focus is on the royal person, and the story works because the reader focuses on him naturally as the protagonist. That, in turn, made me wonder how much we have really advanced in our sense of democracy.

Far and away, the voter who supported Barack Obama for President in 2008 did so because they liked the man, not because of his qualifications. Because frankly, one incomplete term in the U.S. Senate, some talk show appearances to plug his books, and a network of cronies in Al Capone’s old neighborhood do not begin to qualify a man for the most powerful political office on the planet. President Obama is far from the first President, however, to win office over more qualified opponents. America’s history is full of men who became President because of eloquent speeches, wartime heroism, or even physical appearance – some voters said to the press that they voted for Warren Harding in 1920 over James Cox because they thought him better and more honest-looking. Critics from the media and rival political factions have noted the royal demeanor of Presidents Reagan and Kennedy, and even of far earlier men like John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In that manner, Barack Obama is merely acting in a pattern long established, though a strange one for a nation conceived in the notion that men should build their own fortunes and the government work for the people. This brings up the second class to consider, the villains.

In modern parlance, “villain” means the bad guy, but for many years a villain simply referred to a person in a village – that is, a common and crude person. The inference was usually that the villain was a hindrance to the hero of the story (usually noble), because he was unable to understand the hero’s mission and did not properly respect the noble for whom he was. Vestiges of this thinking still continue – in most movies and TV shows, the villain is not especially smart, and is almost never good looking or successful, while the hero is smart, wise, good looking and conveys a clear biological superiority over everyone else. So naturally, in politics the major players always try to cast some villains, in order to shine in comparison. It was not enough, therefore, for Barack Obama to cast himself as the hero of his story; it was necessary for him to mock and insult Senator Clinton, and after winning the part nomination, to do the same to Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin. Since winning the White House, Obama continues to deride anyone who stands in the way of his policies and proposals, rather than defend his position or prove that his position is the best course or even well-considered. It’s just easier, and no doubt more fun, to rail at his enemies a la Richard Nixon.

The problem is, there are a lot more ordinary people than privileged people. And eventually, folks decide that they get a bit tired of a privileged person lording it over them, especially since he already enjoys a life with more luxury and comfort than they have. The glamour of supporting a charismatic hero fades if that hero is only seeking his own advantage.

As we open 2010, one can only hope that we can finally find leaders who can grow beyond the one-dimensional pretense of fictional leadership.

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