Friday, February 18, 2011

Can You Change Everything?

Niccolo Machiavelli had a problem. Actually, he had several. A former apparatchik with the Florentine Republic, he had been exiled from Florence by the returning De Medicis. He had to find a way to ingratiate himself with them if he ever wanted to get back to town. Toward that end, he came up with a short treatise on how to rule well. Not justly, not fairly, but well. He sent The Prince to Florence hoping for a warm invitation to return home. It was not forthcoming.

Machiavelli had another problem, and this was with the Catholic Church. Perhaps it was impolitic to point it out at a time when the Vatican ruled much of the west, but Catholics were a problem for anyone wanting to be a conquering despot. Catholics were too nice. Christians, he said, could not be made to fight fiercely (complaints from the Islamic lands aside). Christians were soft, forever looking to their eternal salvation and not enough in the here and now. Indeed, when Pope Julius II had to raise an army he hired Germans. Much fiercer, those Germans.

Machiavelli saw the Christians as a navel-gazing bunch of softies. You could not count on them in times of war. He recommended a leader pretend to be a Christian to placate his people, but don't fall for it. Be a believer in name only. Let the people be a bunch of lily-livered liberals. The Prince must be made of sterner stuff.

So how did we get upside-down, and is there something here for a writer to learn? Of course. Look at America today. Hold the words "political" and "religious" in your head, and the next word to pop up will probably be "conservative." If we've had one sincerely religious president since Truman, it was probably Bush, Jr.. He famously called Jacques Chirac before the start of the Iraq war, asking him to join in the great battle of Gog and Magog that would bring on the end times. Chirac declined, probably muttering the French equivalent of WTF? as he hung up the phone.

Machiavelli would not have recognized Christians marching off to war. During the Crusades, yes. Today, yes. During his time? No. In his time, the long-haired, unwashed young men were German Berserkers marching on Bologna under orders from the Pope, not anti-war protesters.

We're a less polarized society than the one Machiavelli knew, of course, although we're more so in the political arena. Much more so. But it's a warning against cliché when creating characters and situations. Write individuals, not types. Never assume. Do not write the groupthink religious right nor the groupthink secular liberal.

The estimable cartoonist Berkeley Breathed had an early cartoon that shows this idea at work: a trucker and a hippie are sitting at a lunch counter. The trucker is bemoaning the changes he sees in the country, how tough it is when a man can't put in a day's work for a day's pay, something like that. The hippie listens quietly until the last panel, when he shouts: "America! Love it or leave it, you commie pinko!"


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