Spooky stories • 31 October 2008 • The SnowBlog
There's a bit in today's Guardian about George W. Bush's cultural legacy. You can imagine what it's like. Twelve writers piling on the outraged superlatives. I got bored after reading the first few. But then I realised I had spotted a change of my own over the last eight years. In the US, the Nixon administration and the Vietnam war marked a shift in attitude after which an appreciable number of people, for the first time, didn't trust their government. I think the recent administration has completed that. Mistrust of authority is now a default position for many. Ten years ago you could write a story about a secret under-cover government organisation doing lots of cool espionage and saving the day. These days virtually no one is prepared to believe an outfit like that could be a force for good. If you tried to make them heroes, you'd at least have to show them making mistakes or wrestling with the question of torture.
I think nowadays the more secret something is the more suspicious we are of it (we used to just think it was cool or important). And think of all the movies from the Eighties and Nineties where the President was portrayed as noble and wise and a handy deus ex machina for resolving your plot. That won't really fly any more. It would seem too farfetched. There's always been subversive writing - yesterday I mentioned George Orwell, someone who set the modern standard for doubting authority - but I think over the last eight years the spirit of counter-culture has pervaded everything. It's no longer a radical position to say the government lie to us and abuse their power; it's just the way things are. Even James Bond has to live with consequences these days, he has to worry whether he's doing the right thing. And as for George Bush's legacy, whether presiding over a mass outbreak of public cynicism turns out to actually benefit the world will depend. As ordinary people soak up anti-authoritarian attitudes and themes from the stories that we read (and watch and listen to) we'll become more difficult to manipulate next time around. On the other hand, if we're about to enter an era where our instincts for trust and cooperation are no longer weaknesses, then the Bush legacy might turn out to be even more toxic than some of those Guardian commentators fear.