How’s this for a creative writing prompt: “If I were the devil, I would ____.”
Lately, this concept seems to hold particular allure.
I first noticed it last week, when a friend shared a video called "If I wanted America to fail" (see below). The video, posted by a group called Free Market America on April 20, has topped one million views.
If you don't watch it, here's the gist: The video opens with a grave-faced narrator: “If I wanted America to fail, to follow, not lead ... I’d start with energy.” He then outlines a litany of objectives, such as using public schools to teach schoolchildren that people are causing global warming. The ominous kicker at the end: “If I wanted America to fail, I—I suppose I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Then, this Sunday, the New York Times published an op-ed by writer E.L. Doctorow titled “Unexceptionalism: A Primer.” The essay begins: “To achieve unexceptionalism, the political ideal that would render the United States indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world, do the following”—followed by step-by-step instructions, such as “If you’re a justice of the Supreme Court, decide that the police ... have the absolute authority to strip-search any person whom they, for whatever reason, put under arrest.” The finale: “With this ruling, the reduction of America to unexceptionalism is complete.”
Although ideologically different, the two arguments sounded eerily similar. And although Doctorow was silent on what inspired his piece, Free Market America stated it directly: "Inspired by Paul Harvey's classic essay, 'If I were the devil.'"
Harvey was a longtime radio commentator for ABC and a syndicated columnist. The first version of his essay "If I were the devil" was published in 1964, but he updated several variations over the years. (The essay has also been changed in various chain-email iterations.) Here is one version:
After expounding on the devilish appeal of the modern world's godlessness, moral relativism, and materialism, Harvey ends: "In other words, if I were the devil, I'd just keep right on doing what he's doing."
So what should we make of the arguments made by Free Market America and Doctorow? Are they contributing to the lack of civility in public discourse by demonizing the opponent? Or are they thoughtful arguments, articulated in an effective, albeit emotionally manipulative, way?
There is room to argue that these are valid exercises in satire. It's nothing new to employ this sort of ironic inversion, where the narrator argues one point so the author can convey the opposite point. A notable example is Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, where the narrator exuberantly proposes that the solution for the impoverished Irish is to sell their children as food. Swift's intent, of course, is just the opposite; it's a scathing criticism of attitudes and policies toward the poor.
And in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the narrator is, in fact, a devil--an older devil instructing a younger devil on how to succeed in tempting humans into worldliness and immorality. Using the perspective of the devils, however, allows Lewis to teach a moral lesson about resisting the temptations of the world.
Satire is an important form of political commentary. Unfortunately, these more recent examples don't execute it quite as artfully as Swift and Lewis; they stray into hyperbole and straw man territory.
Sure, it's tempting to employ such emotionally appealing tactics--it's easy and effective. And for decades, a majority or near-majority of Americans polled have believed that the country is "on the wrong track," so maybe it's the natural next step to believe that America is on a track of diabolical decay.
The problem is that when someone equates a particular policy position with The Destruction of America as We Know It, or equates those who hold that position as evil (and/or stupid), they disregard the fact that reasonable people can disagree, and that their opponents probably have decidedly non-sinister reasons for believing what they do.
It's also worth pointing out that both parties are guilty of this--it's something we all need to work on.
Instead of indulging in sky-is-falling histrionics, wouldn't it be much more productive to have a discussion about the issue itself, about the pros and cons of each side?
Perhaps we could learn from Lewis' comments on the experience of writing The Screwtape Letters: "Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment ... it was easy to twist one's mind into the diabolical attitude, [but] it was not fun, or not for long."
Holly Munson is the programs coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the assistant editor of Constitution Daily.