When Does License Give Way to Responsibility?

By John Gilstrap

When Six Minutes to Freedom was published in 2006, I was shocked and, frankly, dismayed by the number of fans who told me that they couldn’t wait till my next novel came out because they don’t read non-fiction. But SixMin is a thriller, I told them; it just happens to be true. Some took a chance, most didn’t, and that’s fine. People obviously have the right to read whatever suits their fancy. I’ve turned my back on non-fiction anyway. It’s too hard. In writing non-fiction, you’re constrained by what actually happened, without regard to the development of the most intriguing story arc.

Fiction is about drama; non-fiction is about reality. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in these hyper-political times, where it seems that everyone on every street corner has proclaimed him or herself to be either a rabid Republican or a rabid Democrat or rabid Something Else Entirely, I’m wondering if a little non-fiction might be in order.

McCain says that Obama voted against funding the war in Iraq. Well, not really. He voted against a bill that funded the war without setting a date for early withdrawal. Without addressing the wisdom of the vote itself, I’m dismayed that the sound bite omits the qualifier. On the other side, Obama asserts that McCain likewise voted against a bill to fund the war, but he omits the extenuation that McCain’s objection reflected the presence of a hard date for withdrawal.

Why, then, don’t they publicly argue the real issue, which is the wisdom of announcing a withdrawal date? I think it’s because that argument is a complex one, and complex arguments can’t be conveyed in a sound bite—which has become the attention span of far too many voters. I hate to let my cynicism show so clearly, but I’ll bet bucks to buttons that of every ten people who blame the worldwide financial woes on Democrats or Republicans, not two of them could cogently articulate what, exactly, their alleged culprit did wrong. I’m sorry, but the laying of blame on “Wall Street’s corporate greed” is so hyper-simplified as to be meaningless.

Does the sound bite drive the news because of viewers’ demands, I wonder, or really because the sound bite represents the depth of knowledge of the average news reader? Clearly, that’s not my call. My bag is the entertainment business. I make stuff up for a living. And if I do my job really, really well, I can create global crises that seem very plausible, even though they’re built entirely of my imagination. It’s a cool job.

But I wonder sometimes where my license to entertain ends and where my responsibility as a citizen begins. For years, I’ve been sitting on this really terrific, terrifyingly plausible terrorist plot because I worry about giving the bad guys a new idea. We’re a nation at war, and I deeply and genuinely worry about writing anything that might bring additional danger to people in harm’s way. I worry about making our nation and our leaders look worse than they already do to the rest of the world, because I believe that everything that weakens those leaders internally empowers our enemies abroad. Empowered enemies, in turn, shoot at people I love.

Now, let me state for the record: I in no way favor any form of government-imposed censorship. Ever. Never in any case, period.

But is a little voluntary restraint out of the question?

Remember a few years ago when Oliver Stone released his movie JFK? It was a complete and total fabrication of events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, and to his credit, Stone never represented it as anything but. Still, a recent poll showed that an astonishing majority of Americans believe that the film represents a historical record. Next week, Oliver Stone will release W, his “biography” of President Bush—a man whose politics Stone openly loathes. He confesses that the movie is likewise fiction, but surely he knows—as we all know—that a substantial majority of Americans will not bother to do the independent research to find the reality within the fiction, and will therefore accept his fiction as truth.

Intellectually, I understand and accept and would even defend that there’s nothing wrong with that. But deep inside where that little whirly-gig tells you what’s really right and wrong, I wonder about all those young men and women in harm’s way who will face a newly re-empowered enemy.


4 thoughts on “When Does License Give Way to Responsibility?

  1. God, John, you made me think. Ouch.

    The Presidential race seems to be about distortions and perception, which makes it a popularity contest. And negative works better than positive and discussing issues so they are understandable is too much trouble. I’m sick of the same say-nothing, intelligence- insulting ads running hundreds of times every day. Last week my youngest son said it was too bad the debates weren’t just on the radio because McCain was at a disadvantage because Obama looked more vital. Complex just doesn’t work in our world of demanding everything is delivered to us in “bites.” Let us never lose sight of the fact that elections have become popularity contests, pure and simpler the better.

    Great post.

  2. Well said — both the post and the comment. I long for a debate without a moderator. Let the candidates talk to each other (what a concept) and prod each other to be specific and truthful. I wonder who would watch.

    John’s point on responsibility is sobering. At one end is a horrifying worst case scenario and at the other is a world where everything is dumbed down and no one has to think.

  3. Good post. And the point in JRM’s post about seeing versus hearing is so true. If I’d listened to the debate on the radio rather than watching it, I would have called it a wash. As it was, McCain looked like an angry old man ready to run the kids off his front lawn while Obama appeared calm and in control. A picture is worth a thousand votes.

  4. I agree with you completely about withholding the terrorist plot if you feel so strongly about giving them a new idea. After seeing the effects of 9/11 on the American national psyche, I thought of a terrorist plan that, while not as catastrophic as 9/11, would be even more unsettling. Never wrote it. Never discussed it with more than a couple of close friends. It’s like drinking too much; just because we can doesn’t mean we should.


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