The ultimate problem – the problem at the heart of almost every wrong-headed idea that comes from the right – is that the Republicans have wandered into fantasyland. By this I don’t mean that they are all stumbling along behind Peter Pan, or that they’ve turned their party symbol into an ear-flapping, flying elephant (though perhaps they have all taken too many turns on Mr. Toad’s, er, Bush’s, um, Rove’s, make that Delay’s, or maybe Dobson’s Wild Ride).
When I talk about Fantasyland, I’m talking about something more serious. And dangerous. Warning: there’s rough religious waters ahead.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I write “speculative fiction.” There are a lot of little niches within this broad section of the fiction universe — alternate history, cyperpunk, horror — but the two best known broad categories are science fiction and fantasy. For better than a century, people have been fighting over these labels. Is science fiction only something that uses strict extrapolation of facts? If it fantasy when it introduces something that can’t be reduced to logic and hardware? I’ll give you a much simpler definition: science fiction looks forward, fantasy looks back.
Take a look at the landscape of Lord of the Rings. Scattered over the hillsides are the ruins of fantastic castles, the fallen remains of enormous statues, the worn down nubs of a civilization that was. Even discounting the fact that this fantasy is set in the past, it looks even farther into the past. Typical of many fantasy worlds, LOTR is “autumnal.” Its characters live in the fading days of a great age, with only echoes of a time when godlike deeds were accomplished. Once men (and other creatures) carved mountains into fantastic forms. Once there were great kings and glorious conflicts and honor and strength and valor. Now the world is only a shadow of what was. The greatest treasures we have are the few remnants of what was. If we want to look for the best of what can be, we stare backwards into the mists of the past.
That’s the way it is in fantasyland. Wonders are behind you, only drudgery lies ahead.
For Republicans, that era of great deeds lies in some ill formed space between Plymouth Rock and “I Like Ike.” They know there were once giants in the earth. They know there was once “decency” and “honor” and they believe that those things are now lost. To build the walls of their fantasy kingdom, they lift a snatch of Adams here, a line of Lincoln there, and stir with allusions to John Ford westerns. Oh sure, King Ronald postdates the end of this golden era, but he was merely a reminder of earlier days, like Arthur rolling over beneath Glastonbury Torr.
There’s nothing wrong with remembering our history. In fact, it’s vitally important that we both recall and learn from the past. What’s wrong is to assume that the source of greatness lies behind us, that we are somehow lesser than the men and women who struggled through World War II, or those who founded our country.
Here’s some history we should recall: four thousand years ago, a small group moved from the city of Ur in what is now Iraq to a new home in areas that we would recognize as Israel. These people, Abram and those who accompanied him, created the basis of the three western religions that dominate our nation and our politics. In his book, The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill recognizes the enormous importance of what these people accomplished. It wasn’t that they signed a covenant with God. It was that they made a break with the past. What they did somewhere between the green valley of the Fertile Crescent and the scrubby hillsides of Canaan was as vital to mankind as the wheel. They invented progress.
You can catch a glimpse of the difference between Abram’s religion and what came before in Karen Armstrong’s seminal A History of God. Other religions of the day were locked into fantasyland. Read the surviving writings of the Sumerians, or the Babylonians, and you find a rich, fantastic set of tales about the gods and creatures who struggled to bring Earth into being out of the muddy, primordial chaos. The stories are fascinating, but they all share something in common: man is an afterthought. All the really important struggles take place in the “before time.” What we do — the best we can hope to do — is to emulate the gods, never to equal them.
The gift of the Jews is progress. Progress in a religion that puts man at the heart of God’s plan and puts the future on a more than equal footing with the past. Sure, the Bible starts with some of those creation stories and associated myths. However, these are more centered on men, and even then the whole thing is wrapped up in the first few pages. The Bible is a story of progress, both in the actions of men, and of the understanding of God. It’s a relationship that’s always being reinterpreted.
When I teach my Sunday School class, I tell the high school kids that they should look to the characters of the Old testament as examples of how people once related to God, then I tell them something else: you can do better. You can understand God’s plan for your life better than David. You can know what God expects of you better than Moses. You can be in covenant with God in a way that Abraham never imagined. You can be a better person than any of these characters. You can be more kind, less cruel, more just, smarter, more thoughtful. Better. Any casual reader approaching the Bible will find that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New bare scant resemblance. That’s because this is a religion that looks ahead. The words are fixed, but our minds are not. It’s all about learning from the past, and forging your connection with God anew.
The same should be true of our democracy. Those founders and fighters who brought us to where we are deserve praise for what they accomplished, but they should never be seen as more than what they were. We can understand how the world works more clearly than Jefferson, Washington, or anyone who laid a pen to the Constitution. We should look on these men with the respect they deserve, but we should not overlook their flaws, neither should we treat their words as inviolable ‘holy writ.’ We should build on what they gave us, not worship it.
When you look to the past as if it is better than the future, whether it is in your religion or your politics, you find yourself justifying murder, defending war, and siding with leaders who committed every crime imaginable while thinking themselves on the side of God and country. To deify the past is to denigrate civil rights and suffrage. You cannot elevate the slaveholder without also raising the institution of slavery.
Right now, the Republicans have not looked to the right so much as they have stared into the past. They’ve squinted hard enough that they can pretend to see none of the hardship, and only catch the glint of faded glories. They fumble through history like Cabalists seeking some secret meaning. They turn actions of fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years ago into causes for war, reasons to hold people interminably, or excuses to deny liberty.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Republican assault on reason. Whether it is substituting “intelligent design” for evolution, the constant berating of public schools and teachers, or the old “liberal elite” chestnut, the Republicans are marching under the banner of regressive ignorance. They fight against stem cell research as much because it represents the future as because it brushes against some tenant of their faith. Some of them do not see that the past they seeking to resurrect was a dark place, filled with abuse for all those not in power. Some don’t see. Other’s don’t care.
We have to offer an alternative, to raise the torch of both liberty and learning. The Democratic Party is the progressive party. That has to be our gift to the nation. We will look fearlessly forward, willing to address the issues of today, not re-fight the wars of the past. We must defend every inch of progress made in gaining fairness and personal liberty. We have to understand that the banners of the party, justice, reason, knowledge, science, personal and religious freedom must all advance together, or none of them will advance at all.
We need a good stout dose of science fiction in our mix. We need its optimism and inventiveness. This is after all a science fiction nation, a nation of continent spanning trains, and delicate airplanes, and rockets to the moon. The real gift of the past has been to reward us with the understanding that the future can be better in ways that we can’t even guess.
Fantasyland is a dangerous place, where institutions crumble and knowledge fades. Fortunately for us, the lesson of four thousand years is this: progress always wins. Let’s just make sure it wins sooner, rather than later. Personally, as much as I love Tolkien, I could do without a dark age of sitting among the ruins, smoking pipeweed, and telling the tales of past giants.