I am not someone who boldly steps forward and engages with life. Humans generally have messy lives, and I try to reduce the mess in mine by watching what other people do and working out potential solutions ahead of time. So a lot of what I know about life has been gained through reading instead of actual experience. I know, I know…real experience gets you real answers, life is meant to be lived, and so on. Yes, I’m exaggerating my lack of engagement a bit. Plus, I figure learning through reading exposes you to more than you might run into naturally. Thanks to all the advice columns I’ve read, I’ve learned many useful responses to relationship issues I will never encounter in my own life!
Besides advice columns, I’ve picked up on many new things through reading blogs. That’s where I first heard about various topics that are, ah, passionately discussed nowadays: trigger warnings, pronouns, cultural appropriation, and privilege. It’s been a lot easier to explore them through reading, where I have the space to realize and reflect and analyze and wince and absorb and regret and question in private.
And before blogs and advice columns, there were books, and there have always been more of them than the other two combined. In fiction, my favorite genre is fantasy. There’s lots to be learned about life in novels generally, but fantasy novels are often large scale, with the fates of nations and cultures at stake. So if I’ve been learning about how to relate to people one-to-one through reading, that’s probably also how I’ve been learning about politics. Not party politics—that’s more the stuff of blogs and social media—but the bigger issues of how governments work, how people behave in large groups, and how to be a good citizen. While these are always important issues, let’s admit it: they’re front and center now.
But here’s my problem: fantasy authors don’t set their stories in democracies. I’m absorbing lessons on how to restore a rightful king or queen to their throne.
The fantasy authors I’m familiar with live in countries where everyday people have the right to vote and their votes matter. But these authors mainly write about absolute monarchies and the struggles in their books aren’t contained within democratic norms. No one needs to worry about maintaining democratic institutions because there aren’t any.
Consider The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn is a king because he’s the heir of Isildur. It’s great that he’s honorable, intelligent, has a sense of justice, and so on, but he’d still get to be king without any of that. Certainly the people of Gondor aren’t going to be consulted in the matter. And putting Aragorn on his throne doesn’t require getting out the vote, winning midterm elections, countering foreign hacking, or fighting voter suppression. Mainly it involves winning a war against an opposing army of orcs, trolls, Nazgûl, and humans that apparently aren’t like the Men of Rohan and Gondor. There’s no need to work out how you’re going to integrate the opposition into your society afterwards because you’re going to kill a lot of them, and anyway, most of them are literally not human and the different peoples of Middle Earth tend to stick to their own. Of course, this part of the war would achieve nothing if Frodo, Sam, and Gollum hadn’t gotten the Ring to Mordor and destroyed it. That’s a great story, but there isn’t much there to support the modern upholder of democracy except a general reassurance that even the most overlooked people can make a difference.
I don’t read as much science fiction as I do fantasy, but the TV shows and movies I’ve watched have been science fiction far more than fantasy. Democracy is much more likely to exist in an SF universe, but in many stories, we don’t see much of it. My dim memory of government in the original Battlestar Galactica was that the democratically-elected Council of Twelve was mainly an obstacle for the military (our heroes) to work around or ignore—not a good model when real people and everyday life are involved. The Republic in Star Wars is a odd mixture of democracy and monarchy that mainly suggests different people over several decades doing just enough world building to support the plot of each movie. I think Star Trek‘s Federation is a federal republic, but I couldn’t tell you how it’s perceived by average people living on Federation planets; we mainly see the effects of its foreign policy. Democracy is so far gone in Blake’s 7 and Firefly that the heroes aren’t worrying about preserving democratic norms day-to-day. Mere survival is higher on their agendas—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as applied to small rebel groups.
Comic books and graphic novels were a staple of my youth and, okay, off and on in adulthood. Here we have heroes, villains, and Good vs. Evil depicted about as clearly as it ever gets. Mind you, there’s not much beyond a supporting role for people without superpowers, and again, the methodology is “bash the enemy into defeat with nifty powers,” which is a lot more entertaining to read/look at than registering voters. Also, the villains often want to destroy Earth, not overthrow a government. Manga and anime? I’m having flashbacks to Sailor Moon. In that universe, the eventual future was going to be a monarchy, and the series never got into whether or not it’d be a constitutional one. Plus our heroines were using magic to fight for love and justice, not door-to-door campaigning.
But why does this even matter? Because unlike some of the things I mentioned at the start of this post, there aren’t many good resources. If I didn’t learn about relationship problems from advice columns, I’d have learned about them from personal experience and the experiences of people I know. Those topics I’ve found in blogs are being discussed everywhere now; even if I had to learn about them with others, I’d know about them. But our culture has offered me very little in what to do when your democracy (or federal republic) doesn’t seem as secure as you thought it was. I don’t need to have read stories about tornado drills because I’ve gone through them for most of my life. I apparently do need to read about preserving democracy, because I’ve never practiced that beyond voting and a lot of signatures on petitions.
So am I doing the normal, mundane things you do in the United States to be a good citizen? Yep. I’m registered to vote and I’ve read about the candidates in the upcoming election. But a lifetime of reading fantasy novels suggests that I should also be creating a voting amulet or a democracy talisman or something. Isn’t there a spell I should be casting?