the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
CASTING THE ROLES IN AN OLD DRAMA
“You know something, Robin, I was just wondering. Are we good guys or bad guys? You know, I mean, our robbing the rich to feed the poor.”
People love rebels; people hate rebels. This is contradictory on its face, but it needn’t be. It is merely a matter of perspective. A person can be rebellious on the small scale, and loyal on the larger scale. And while I don’t believe most persons are consciously considering the difference in perspective to reconcile their contradictory impulses on this subject, I do believe that the impulses can be reconciled. How can we persuade the public to take sides, and to take our side, if it comes to a fight? Are we good guys or bad guys?
We in the United States live in a society where property and wealth are celebrated, where power is entrenched, and where law and order are established principles and valued traditions. Criminals and outlaws of all sorts are despised. The public is generally inclined to defer to formal authority ― parent, teacher, priest, constable, mayor. The presidency of the United States is, despite the status of the US as a republic, treated with reverence, as it were a monarchy. The president is, by rank and dignity, the emperor of the state and the high priest of the nation. And in our history, we have blindly supported the suppression of rebellion, even if that meant the endorsement of a corrupt or even cruel order, as in France, Russia, and Vietnam.
And yet we are also a society that celebrates a violent revolt against the established order ― our state was in fact founded in such a revolt. We have, when deemed geopolitically valuable, worked for the overthrow of an established government in many parts of the world. In the south, the Civil War is remembered fondly. In the northwest, ultranationalist elements picture themselves as modern revolutionaries. And all of this originates from the conservative side of society. Among progressives, revolution holds a much stronger attraction.
The Robin Hood legend is immediately appealing to those who spend a lifetime battling the powers of the world. The hero fought righteously in defiance of the establishment of his day, living in hiding and depending on the fellowship of the Merry Men, violating the law and risking execution, for a cause no more complicated than the idea that everyone should eat. Poverty has been with us as long as civilization and property; with the institution of property came the accumulation of wealth, the concentration of resources in the hands of those who actively sought power and control, at the expense of those who required those resources for survival.
The legend’s popularity with the general public is a bit less obvious. Robin Hood was an outlaw. He was a thief. The same person who will in fiction cheer Robin’s bravado will in reality cheer a thief’s imprisonment. But, unconsciously, this person is viewing the matter as situational. We would all like to consider ourselves as possessing the heroism to stand up to injustice. We identify with those who do. The fact that the public seldom does stand up to injustice is not viewed by the public as a lack of courage but as a lack of necessity. They seldom identify injustice. They are remaining loyal because the situation as they see it deserves loyalty.
Robin Hood and Nottingham on the small scale, and Richard and John Plantagenet on the large scale, are embodiments of a great polar conflict in the universe. Of course, Richard the Lion-Hearted was a king, and so he was, by some definitions, the establishment. But the legend portrays him as a noble king, and his brother as the cruel usurper. So Robin Hood was rebelling and remaining loyal at the same time, and was right to do so.
The formula is repeated in religion: Michael is fighting not merely to cast out Lucifer, but to defend God. It is repeated in popular culture: the Rebel Alliance is fighting not merely to overthrow Palpatine, but to restore the Old Republic. It is an old story, and it has possibly-universal appeal. And I believe it to be based on a greater story that underlies psychology, and everything, including human history, that is dependent on psychology. Dominion claims the right to rule. Stewardship resists. This, in the eyes of the dominion, is rebellion, and it endeavors to convince the vast middle of the spectrum that the stewards are in violation of right. The stewards are named so not only for their assumption of responsibility, but also for their refusal to claim the right to rule. They are appealing for the support of the middle by reference to something above both themselves and the dominion, something of higher authority, whose authority they are defending and the dominion is usurping ― truth.
Are we good guys or bad guys? Are we rebels, or are we loyalists? In fact, we are both. We are rebellious to the usurper, loyal to the rightful king. We are rebellious to the powers that be, loyal to the powers that should be. And if we wish to have the public on our side, we must offer them both the romance of rebellion, and the legitimacy of reference to a higher value. We must delegitimize the dominion as usurpers, and cast our rebellion as the quest to reestablish the rightful order, something older and deeper. Our opponents are champions of a false order; we are champions of truth.
Of course, we could always just say our opponents were evil. That might simplify things.
© O.T. FORD
Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford