More Power of Fiction
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

More Power of Fiction

In the past I have talked about how civilians in Syria see themselves as peasants in Game of Thrones, and soldiers in Ukraine want to be as excellent as characters in first-person shooter Call of Duty. This year I want to record that college-edited commentators like Max Boot are comparing the assassination of condottiere Yevgeniy Prigozhin to their favourite scenes from crime dramas in formal published prose:

The most fitting epitaph for Wagner Group founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin was delivered by the shotgun-wielding hit man Omar Little on “The Wire”: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” There’s still much we don’t know for certain (and might never know), but that pearl of wisdom was confirmed by Prigozhin’s apparent death Wednesday after a private plane he was on reportedly crashed north of Moscow.

Max Boot, “Opinion: Prigozhin appears to be dead — and Putin’s grip on power is stronger than ever,” The Washington Post, 23 August 2023

I don’t know what to say other than that many people have trouble keeping fact and fiction separate! The late and unlamented Prigozhin was not the only one who really should have studied his Cicero and Machiavelli and Ramon Muntaner about great captains who anger their prince. And I think T. Greer of The Scholar’s Stage had a point that quotes from TV and movies play the same role in US pop culture today that quotes from poets had in the Greek and Roman world, or quotes of the Confucian classics had in imperial China. I will try not to be too hard on myself when my youth reading American science fiction of the 1940s through 1970s slips out. In this case, I am thinking of Beam Piper’s “The Edge of the Knife” from 1957:

The exchange prevented him from noticing that Max Pottgeiter had risen, until the old man was speaking.

“Are you trying to tell these people that Professor Chalmers is crazy?” he was demanding. “Why, he has one of the best minds on the campus. I was talking to him only yesterday, in the back room at the Library. You know,” he went on apologetically, “my subject is Medieval History; I don’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the contemporary world, and I didn’t understand, really, what all this excitement was about. But he explained the whole thing to me, and did it in terms that I could grasp, drawing some excellent parallels with the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. All about the revolt at Damascus, and the sack of Beirut, and the war between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and how the Turkish army intervened, and the invasion of Pakistan….”

“Good Lord, man; don’t you read the papers at all?” another of the trustees asked.

“No! And I don’t read inside-dope magazines, or science fiction. I read carefully substantiated facts. And I know when I’m talking to a sane and reasonable man. It isn’t a common experience, around here.”

H. Beam Piper, “The Edge of the Knife,” Amazing Stories, May 1957

I really did not expect that when I grew up I would see people who want to pilot the ship of state understanding surprising events not by historical analogy, but through a TV show!

PS. On 3 September, the president of Ukraine announced that their new Minister of Defense will be a Crimean Tartar named Rostam. Nomen est omen.

(scheduled 28 August 2023)

Edit 2023-09-21: compare novelist John Boyne including a recipe for red dye from the video game Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in a historical novel published in 2020 But it seems to me that treating something explicitly fictional as truth is a different mistake than being careless about whether your source is fact or fiction. Boyne corrected himself as soon as he was caught, whereas the people who cite TV dramas as models for current events clearly think that fiction tells a kind of higher truth.

Edit 2023-11-08: I see claims that the student protests against the military dictatorships in Thailand and Burma use a three-finger salute from the Hunger Games movies (the Burmese students are also embarrassing their elders by resorting to violence and then seeming to start winning while the “older and wiser heads” intoned that using violence would just let the regime massacre them)

Edit 2024-04-09: see also a 20-something man who decided to settle a fight with a pimp using a gambit from a revenge drama

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3 thoughts on “More Power of Fiction

  1. Andrew Gelman says:

    You write, “quotes from TV and movies play the same role in US pop culture today that quotes from poets had in the Greek and Roman world, or quotes of the Confucian classics had in imperial China.”

    But that’s ok, no? It’s not like a quote from Cicero or whatever has any particular value greater than a quote from The Sopranos or whatever.

    1. Sean says:

      Sure, but understanding that helps see the parallel! (And why the cultural power of poetry collapsed in the 1950s just as TV and movies were expanding). When T. Greer was teaching English to teenagers in China, he worked out a crash course of film and TV references so his students could speak idiomatically if they went to school overseas.

      On the topic of this post, the biggest problem is that TV and film writers these days have almost no practical experience of dealing with power or politics or making things with their hands. The Wire was a kind of fictionalized sociology but in general I would not advise taking film or TV as anything more than light entertainment!

    2. Sean says:

      Citing an episode of a TV drama is as if an English or colonial person in the 1780s had thought about the keeping and bearing of arms using stories from Virgil or Saxo Germanicus, rather than the list of historical anecdotes from Greek, Italian, and English history which the educated and politically active could rattle off. Or like when British people expect that people take Shakespeare as an authority on 15th-century English history. Maybe George R.R. Martin the authors of The Wire took many grubby incidents and turned them into a single beautiful and terrible image, but the Muses tell truthful things and also truth-like lies.

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