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Friday, February 03, 2012

The Overton Window: Last Thoughts

Welcome back one and all to our ongoing series on The Overton Window, the book that shot the sheriff, but did not shoot the deputy. Last time we suffered through an afterword in which the authors attempted to justify their staggering incompetence. What happens this week? We wrap up the entire "Overton Window" experience with some final thoughts, which are also first thoughts since this book has, thus far, basically inspired no thinking whatsoever.

As I mentioned I am once again selecting a comment of the week, and this week that "honor" goes to Jay just for being depressing:

Someday the nation will have horseless metal carriages, zooming across the landscape at speeds of almost 30 miles an hour and recklessly endangering the careless pedestrian.

Sorry, I was trying to think of a warning slightly less timely than the one in this book.

Our problem isn't that a PR person may cynically manipulate us to increase his own power. Our problem is that we've become completely accustomed to treating the news as fodder for a contest between cynical PR teams, and have lost the ability to collectively react to facts except through that framework.

Jay is, of course, absolutely right. We have grown accustomed to PR blitzes and this does mean that the book is effectively "ripped from the headlines", even though those headlines derive from the late 19th century. Well done, Jay, and everyone give it your all this week: it's your last chance to get a win before I tally the results for the index!

Given that we've finally wrapped up this book, let's take a last look at the dramatis personae:

Dramatis Personae: In an order determined by the fates.

Eli Churchill: Former janitor at a volcano lair. Fan of remote telephone booths. Shot in the head by parties unknown.

Beverly Emerson: Mysterious correspondent of Eli Churchill's. Molly's Mom. Injected with weed killer by parties unknown blisteringly obvious to everyone.

Noah Gardener: 28 years old. Sets the dating bar "medium-high". Works Vice president at a PR firm. Went to NYU. Is "witty". Frequently forgets where he's going and why. Not good at talking to women. Not really inclined to help out cab drivers. Low tolerance for alcohol. Lost his mother when he was young. Fond of chicken and waffles. Rich as shit. Views himself as a sexual panther. Likes bacon. Considers himself to be good at word games. Wants to bang his mom. Some kind of moronic double-agent.

Molly "Hottie McPretty" Ross: Dresses like a hippie, but not really. Looks like a free spirit. Perfectly captures the essence of womanhood. Auburn hair. Green eyes. Pale skin. Has a tattoo on her chest. Wears a silver cross around her neck. Lost her father when she was young. Impressed by fancy cars. Cocktease. Possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. Looks just like Noah's mom. Also looks just like Natalie Portman. Almost certainly dead from a nuclear blast.

Arthur Gardner Noah's father. Owner of Doyle & Merchant. Megalomaniac. Surprisingly vigorous for a 74 year old man.

Khaled: Lebanese cab driver. Sold out by Noah Gardener.

Hollis: Friend of Molly Ross. Very polite. From the country. May be a Yeti.

Danny Bailey: Some kind of YouTube celebrity. Former lover of Molly Ross. Kind of a dickhead. Loves conspiracy theories and incoherent speeches. Sodomized by inmates following the rally. Once dressed up as Colonel Sanders to infiltrate the United Nations. May be afraid of cats. Fast draw, terrible shot. Died pointlessly in a nuclear detonation.

Charlie Nelan: Gardner family lawyer. Silver hair. Impeccably dressed. Looks awesome. Has some sort of weird relationship with GQ. May have the ability to sense when Noah's in trouble using some sort of clairvoyance. Possible kleptomaniac.

Stuart Kearns: FBI agent. Works on homeland security matters. Kinda old and wrinkly. Not particularly trusting. Lives in a double-wide trailer. Sixty-three years old. Died pointlessly in a nuclear detonation.

Mr. Puddles: AKA Gray Death. AKA Ninja Cat. Stuart's cat. Large. Dangerous looking. Possibly plotting his demise.

Tiffany: A stripper at the Pussycat Ranch. Thinks Danny is awesome.

Ellen Davenport: Old friend of Noah's. Second-year neurology resident at Mt. Sinai. Doesn't appear to need sleep or have good taste in her associates.


It contains 13 characters, although in fairness to the authors two of those (Mr. Puddles and Khaled) have a lot more detail as a result of our fertile imaginations. Also I wasn't really paying very close attention. Regardless, given that the "story" is 292 pages long, that averages to about 22 pages per character. That's more impressive than Left Behind's 15 pages per character, but not really when you realize that the authors of The Overton Window used every trick they could think of to run up the page length. This 292 page story could probably have fit comfortably in 100 pages, which would have given us something more like 8 pages per character or, to be generous, if we assume it would have fit into 200 pages, we'd have 15 pages per character. Or, hey, if you think that's not generous enough, we'll go with the 11 named characters (i.e. excluding Khaled and Mr. Puddles) and 150 pages for about 14 pages per character. So for all intents and purposes we're in the same class as Left Behind.

Now, in this final post I wanted to review the lessons that The Overton Window has taught us. As it turns out, this is a pretty tall order because this book is so stunningly vapid, it's difficult at best to take anything substantial away from it. Nevertheless, I owe it to you, dear readers, to try, and so I will attempt to draw blood from this particular turnip.

Lesson One: If you're going to write a "thriller" it should at least be mildly diverting, if not actually thrilling.

I would have hoped I wouldn't have to make this an actual lesson. I mean, it seems rather obvious to me. And yet... it appears that, no, for some people this really has to be spelled out. And by "some people" I primarily refer to the authors. You see, this book really contained few instances that might be referred to as slightly thrilling. There was a bar fight, which was brief and quickly lost. There was Noah's heroic resistance to oppression in the police station, but that took place off-stage. There was Noah's penetration of Doyle and Marchant, but with his daddy in charge it was difficult to be all that thrilled by a guy basically taking the back door into his own workplace. There was Danny and Stu's meeting with terrorists, who were universally cordial right up until the end. There was Noah's quest for vengeance, which was derailed in about a chapter. There was Noah and Molly's daring escape, which was somewhat daring but unspeakably dumb. There was Danny and Stu's gunfight, which was told but not shown. There was Danny and Stu's suicide, which was thrilling only in that we all hated them. And then I guess there was Noah's effort to stop the cops, which was just dumb. Over and over the authors attempted to invoke something akin to a thrill, but they were consistently and utterly defeated by their own inability to craft a believable character or make the reader care about the situation. As a result, we were left with a narrative, but not a story.

Now, it's fair to ask whether I could do any better, and the honest answer is, "No, probably not." I am not much of a fiction writer- as anyone who has read this blog long enough already knows*- but the thing is, I don't claim to be. I'm a social scientist and a university professor, not a writer of popular fiction. My writing is for scientific journals and is not exactly the stuff of best seller shelves. One could, of course, argue that Beck is also not a fiction writer, by training or inclination,** which is true. He's a radio "personality" and he's managed to make the transition into television as well, which is a medium far removed from fiction writing. Fair enough, but Beck also has quite a few co-writers on this thing. And as a result, one would have thought that at least some of them would have more writing credentials. So, we're forced to conclude that Beck either chose a bevy of co-authors who are also unable to produce decent fiction, or else that he forced so many convoluted and ridiculous constraints on them that they were unable to actually produce very much. In either case, we're left with a sorry situation and an even sorrier book. The simple, final reality is that if you are going to write a novel to promulgate your philosophy, you must at a bare minimum make it entertaining. And yes, I am looking at YOU Ayn Rand. Which brings us to our next point.

Lesson Two: Incoherent anger at your opponents is not the same as a philosophy

When I started reading this book I wasn't expecting much, given my experience with Beck's version of rhetoric, but I was looking forward to learning a bit more about his views. I am, perhaps, a little warped in this regard, but I actually enjoy learning about perspectives that differ from my own. And I think I had a right to expect in a "novel" such as this one that I might, possibly, have gained deeper insight into the ideal world of the right-wing. Sadly, however, this was not to be. The authors of The Overton Window spend a great deal of time criticizing various groups. They apparently view government as corrupt and inefficient, which it sometimes is. They also apparently view corporate America as greedy and underhanded, which it sometimes- perhaps even often- is. They want smaller government, and lower taxes, which are goals that I doubt many of us would really dispute in isolation. But aside from those things we never really learn anything about what they think is good. If we're to have lower taxes, what programs should we cut? Medicare and medicaid? Social security? The military? How about education or funding for science and technology? If we're to have a smaller government, does that mean that more powers devolve on the states, or do we simply give up on regulating some things? Do we give up on regulating pollution, or prescription drugs, or product safety? Do we stop prosecuting the war on drugs or do we give up on the war on terror? The simple truth is that if we are to change our government and the way we live hard choices will have to be made. Certainly a novel cannot be a policy document, but one would think that the authors could have given us some idea of what tradeoffs they would prefer. But, alas, this was not to be. What we got was poorly-directed venom against the "bad guys" and a caricature of "good guys" who reflect nothing moreso than a romanticized notion of what the original rugged individualist Americans would be like if they were somehow transformed into a modern context. It's a sort of wish fulfillment book, only instead of obsessing over fancy cars and apartments like their avatar, Noah Gardner, the authors are obsessing over the notion of what would happen if everyone believed and behaved the way that they do. It's an immature longing for the smoothly functioning democracy that would result if everyone believed the exact same things. Except... that's the whole strength of a democracy, that people don't all believe the same things. If we all agreed, we wouldn't need an elective government. We wouldn't need mechanisms for routinizing political conflict to eliminate the need for political groups to establish safe houses and manufacture hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Simply put, the form of government the authors purportedly long for is one expressly intended for a world other than the one they think necessary to make it work, which reveals such a spectacular misunderstanding of the nature of democracy that I can hardly catch my breath.

In reading this book I was constantly struck by the contrast with Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Those who have read the book, as opposed to just watching the hideous movie version, know that while it sounds like an action novel, it's really a book about political philosophy. Heinlein lays out in intricate, and often very engaging, detail his vision for how a more smoothly functioning democracy might be built. It's very different from our own, often in ways that I think many of us would find unappealing, but one at least walks away understanding what he's presenting and his reasons for suggesting it might work. It can function as a starting point for discussion and, if it isn't the sort of democracy I'd want to live in, it at least preserves an awareness that democracy is a system built around disagreement and negotiation rather than a sickening conformity of thought and belief. Heinlein provides a good example of how a sort of right-wing utopian novel** can be written and made enjoyable, and The Overton Window is all the more disappointing for failing so dramatically in comparison. But, we may as well move on to the next lesson.

Lesson Three: When writing faction, one should be careful not to cherry-pick the facts

Writing any book that is "ten minutes into the future" and "ripped from the headlines" is going to be tricky because much of what you write will become dated and quaint virtually instantly. The authors of this book in theory attempted to deal with this problem, at least in part, by sourcing a lot of material, although they themselves admit that a lot of it was still of very dubious veracity. The thing is, if you're going to go to all that trouble, you should probably try not to miss the forest for all the trees. That is to say, don't focus on getting the little stuff right- like the fixtures in limousines- to the point of screwing up the big stuff. See, the authors were portraying the founding fathers as these god-fearing populists who wanted nothing more than for regular, average joes to be able to set the course of government. The founding fathers were indeed radicals, and for their time they were populists of a sort, but by modern standards they frankly had more in common with Arthur Gardner than with Molly, Hollis and the rest of her merry band of retards. See, when the constitution was written the founders installed an awful lot of protections that had the express purpose or preventing the common people from being in charge. To begin with, the franchise (i.e. the right to vote) was restricted to land-owning white males. Property requirements weren't completely eliminated until about 1860, non-white men couldn't vote until 1870, women couldn't vote until 1920, the poor and racial minorities couldn't vote due to all kinds of measures including poll taxes until the mid-1960's, and adults between 18 and 21 years of age didn't get the vote until 1971. So, for all intents and purposes, the founders intended to limit who was able to set national policy quite tightly. But wait! There's MORE! See, the founders also thought this might be a mistake, so senators were elected by state legislators rather than citizens directly until 1913 and we even got the bizarre institution of the electoral college, which was in theory intended to make sure that if the people voted for someone stupid, older and wiser heads could essentially give the country a do-over. The simple fact is that the constitution of the United States of America, as written by the founders, basically institutes a plutocracy in the guise of a republic and American history since then has been a gradual effort to change the democracy-in-name to democracy-in-fact. As for the notion that the founding fathers were god-fearing populists... well, Jefferson was arguably the most populist guy among them and he was, simultaneously, likely the most hostile to the intersection of government and organized religion. So, not so much.

The failure to see the forest for the trees issue in this book might be viewed as a sin of the authors, but it's not a unique sin of the authors. All political parties commit this sin to a greater or lesser extent, but in the case of the modern right-wing it's rather striking. Conservatives often claim, as their description suggests, that they would prefer to stick with time-tested approaches to various problems. That's a valid perspective and one I have no small amount of respect for, even if I tend to be a fiend for new technology. The problem arises when, instead of trying to stick with the way things have actually worked, you tell yourself an elaborate story about how they should have been and then try to stick with that while claiming to be conservative. See, it's much easier to be in favor of founding fathers who weren't racist, sexist, elitist jerks as opposed to the real founding fathers who just happened to be less racist, sexist, and elitist than the norm for their time period. Don't get me wrong, I love the United States of America and have a great fondness for our government, it's just that the stories we like to tell about ourselves don't always fit very well with reality, and very little good ever comes from self-delusion. If the conservatives want to have the populist nation they half-assedly describe in this book, that's fine, but it's absurd to pretend that it's any less radical a deviation from the traditions and history of the U.S. than what the Democrats want. Both sides want to turn the country into something that, at present, it isn't- it's just that only one side is honest about it. Well, sort of.

And, honestly... that's kinda it for me. I feel bad only drawing 3 lessons from this book, but to be utterly honest it was a trite, hackneyed piece of trash that really only teaches anything via its failures. There is no substance to the characters, the narrative, or even the animating ideas, and as a consequence no matter how hard we try, there's just not that much to be had here. And so, on a low note that frankly captures the entire Overton Window experience, we have to skid to a halt, little more enlightened than we were before, and wondering what we ever did with the time.

Thanks for coming along for the trip! Next week we'll see the series index posted, announce the winner of the comment of the week competition, and then, finally, I am done with this nightmare.


* Yes, if you look hard enough through the archives you'll eventually find one of my high school era short stories. No, I'm not going to find it for you.

** Although if you've read his books on politics you may be inclined to disagree.

*** I say "right-wing" but I'm never really convinced that does justice to Heinlein's actual views. He was fiscally conservative and pro-military, but he was also sexually very liberal and believed that individual choices were sacrosanct. I suspect he would have preferred lower taxes, but would have supported gay marriage and opposed efforts to determine U.S. policy from the bible. I don't think I would necessarily have agreed with Heinlein's views on modern politics in a lot of areas, but I sure as hell would prefer him as an opponent to most of the morons we have around today.



Anonymous Jay said...

What really screws up this book's argument is the fact that the founders didn't agree themselves on what they wanted. The Congregational Church of Massachusetts was a good deal more rabid than the worst fundamentalists, and was the official state church. Some of the founders were deists, which is pretty much what atheism looked like before Darwin and Heisenberg. New England Yankees had (and to some extent still have) a thriving tradition of local democracy, but the South sure didn't. Their founding document was a compromise, and when the first compromise didn't work they tossed it and wrote a new one.

P.S. The electoral college existed because without mass media, mass literacy, and fast travel it was impossible for the masses to form a reasonable opinion on the candidates. Instead, they'd have to vote for somebody they knew for the state legislature. The legislature chose men of good judgement to go to Washington and meet the candidates.

Friday, February 03, 2012 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Sorcia MacNasty said...

I guess when you've screamed and wept your gibbering insanity publicly for millions already, you lose sight of how that behavior, in book form, might not make for an effective "thriller."

That said, do we know if there is Fan Fiction out there? Twisted sex scenes with Molly, Hollis and "surprisingly vigorous" Papa Gardener? Noah's misguided molestation of Molly's nuclear-blasted remains (I'm thinking of that foot)?

It's the Internet. If something exists, there is horrifying fan fiction about it.

And sadly, that garbage is probably more well-written than the actual book. Stick a fork in this motherfucker. WE BE DONE.

Sunday, February 05, 2012 11:15:00 AM  

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