A Trip To The Beach...
"Why do we write?"
When I taught writing at NYU, I would often start the semester by asking my students - those who had made it into the popular class called "Writing About Global Affairs" - that simple question. It usually worked pretty well in kicking off about discussion the purpose of storytelling.
Although one time it got a little dicey. One student -- or should I say a Marine who was fresh back from three tours of duty in Iraq -- saw that other students were being a little shy. A no-bullhshit guy, he raised his hand to move things along...
"To become famous and get laid?" He said. We all burst out laughing. Problem is, there is often truth in laughter. And I had to find that truth...
It was improv time. I had to get the class back to the subject of writing about global affairs...
"You're not entirely wrong..." I said. Causing the laughter to stop net. "History is falloff love letters. I suppose that...In male dominated societies, women were likely interested to know what the story of their life would be... with a given man. Would they be treated as an equal? if not by society, at least by their husbands?
"So you have a point," I said. In fact, there is probably no greater issue in global affairs than how one half of humanity treats the other...."
Shortly after, I was invited to join the NYU Women's initiative, which, to this day, continues to push for gender issues to become a central part of US foreign policy.
But first, a rather funny girl sitting at the front then turned the question back on me.
"So, why do you write, Professor Soussan?"
I had never really thought about it because, for one, I had never planned on becoming a writer.
"You mean, apart from getting laid?" I said, causing the room to giggle again.I needed to buy some time. Time to remember... the image that came to mind was of a rather unusual trip to the beach....
I was never particularly good with words. I didn't enjoy them because they tended to jump around before my eyes all the time. I hid that fact like a spy master, not least because, in my childhood, it was considered "sad" for someone to be dyslexic. And once, I overheard my dad talk about one of his friends' kid.
"His son is dyslexic, poor guy..."
I compensated by focusing on figuring out the point of stories early, so I might not look like such fool in class. Whereas my classmates could speed-read, I just looked at pages until the point of a story jumped out at me. It worked magically, I couldn't explain it. So I liked stories - so much so that I wrote my first screenplay at age seventeen. Drama cuts right to the chase. And in the chase, as in laughter, there is truth.
But really writing. I couldn't describe a tree for the life of me. Other than to say it was big or small. I didn't care. It was a tree. Let a painter make it beautiful, I thought. Why complicate one's life using words... the tree is there already....Besides, my father was a known journalist and a writer of best-selling thriller novels, too. So, no pressure on that front either.
But one might say that I learned storytelling "at the kitchen table." In fact, I suspect that my dad was often testing his stories on me. While taking walks or cooking dinner for some of the eminent members of Paris's intelligentsia, who often came to our modest little appartment and debated all sorts of issues they thought were serious, but which I found kind of funny, because none of them would ever change their minds, which kind of defeated the point of debating to begin with, I thought. But maybe I missed something...
I typically barged off after desert... But once I heard my father tell our guests that he had begun receiving threatening phone calls. I knew that to be true because that same morning, I had picked up the phone while my father was in the shower, and a deep voice said: "Think twice when you turn on the ignition of your car in the morning..."
I hadn't grasped the meaning of the call, which my dad had told me to just ignore, until my father shared it with his friends over dinner. Perhaps he thought I was out of earshot.
I stopped playing. My dad was a politically engaged journalist and a staunch opponent of tyrannical regimes.
But the assassination threat, which his guests found amusing, did not amuse me at all. I went to my room and began to cry. When my dad came to say goodnight, and leaned in to kiss me, I turned away. When he asked me what the matter was, I just cried again. And said I hated him for risking his life. I heard my father take a deep breath. He sat there for a while. Then patted me on the head, and told me "good night." How the hell did he expect me to have a good night?
The next day, he walked into my room before breakfast, car keys in hand:
"Come," He said. "We're going to in Normandy!"
"But... what about school?" I asked.
"I'll show you why I write. Why I take risks," he said.
A few hours later sat atop a German Bunker, perched atop a hill overlooking Omaha Beach, where horror unfolded, on June 6th 1944, when the first wave of Allied soldiers jumped off their boats to face a barrage of enemy fire.
Two armies clashed that day. But so did two stories - tales so powerful that human beings were ready to risk their lives for them. Ironically, both stories promised these men the exact same thing: FREEDOM.
Hitler hailed that the road to freedom required the extermination of "inferior races." While he looked as "Aryan" as Charlie Chaplin, he enlisted Joseph Goebbels to orchestrate his rise to power, and convince the most scientifically advanced democracy to follow him on a mad dash to occupy, decimate, and enslave imaginary enemies.
To counter Hitler's use of 'new media' to dispel propaganda, Roosevelt enlisted Frank Capra, John Ford and other master filmmakers to energize the war effort, and convince American farm boys to go risk their lives help liberate Western Europe. But Hollywood had Germany's propaganda machine beaten to a pulp long before it was recruited to make propaganda films for the allies.
Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR was seen by more Americans than any single propaganda film. And it did a better job of ridiculing the entire Nazi narrative, Hitler himself- without ever resorting to language that demeaned the German people - its hero was a German barber who had served in World War I.
And yet it was Chaplin's parody of fascism, and his hilarious portrayal of Hitler, that stuck most clearly in people's mind when, years after its release, America had to mobilize for war.
Chaplin's portrayal of hitler, more than any propaganda film, worked to mobilize the masses against the lies of a man whose most effective weapon was... marketing. I use the term marketing because "Propaganda" was not a word in common use before Sigmund Freud's nephew wrote the book, siply named Propagada. Edward Bernays, the undisputed "father of American Marketing," was an adviser to President Coolidge and General Motors. Recently, a director of Marketing at Google told me that he "swore by that book.
Bernays, a Austrian born immigrant to the United States, remains a hero to an entire generation of marketing-driven nerds who have come to rule our modern world's perception of itself. The Millenial generation's greatest achievement to date has been the ability to confuse America's sense of values to the extent that the country that branded itself the "leader of the free world" elected a reality show host (best known for his catch-phrase you're fired to the White House.
Sorry, Millenials... but "Occupy Wall Street" did not work so well. And none of your algorhithms, which portend to predict which movie we want to see next month based on what movie we saw last year. (A poor friend of mine who worked at The Blue Man Group had to give up on Facebook after receiving too many ads there on for... you guessed it, The Blue Man Group). And now you want 'Artificial' Intelligence at the wheel of our cars when we can't even stand to sit next to an 'artificial' passenger?
If we are to use new media technologies for good, we need to understand why marketing executives at Google and Goebles both "swear by" the same old book by Edward Bernays.
I write because stories have swayed humanity between formidable periods of progress and bloody period of atrocious war and enslavement since the beginning of human existence.
I write because I don't believe that the "pen was mightier than the sword" at Omaha beach - but that, in periods when we can afford to use ink rather than bullets - at times when we have a choice, I'd rather fight grandiose lies with small, simple truths, than sit on the sidelines, waiting for the next global conflagration.
When I wrote about corruption I remembered the trip to Normandy my father took me to, when we lived in France.. Because no human being in his right mind would go to war -- kill or be killed, unless they believed in a falsehood - unless they were afraid that staying home would simply leave them prey to stories that end with the words "and then they came for us."
I never wanted to become a writer. My father (a writer of best-selling political thrillers in France and an influential journalist in Denmark) warned me, that the chances of a writer becoming widely published were thinner than the chances of me becoming a football star. I had written my first screenplay at age 17... instead of studying for my high-school exams, or course. I assume he must have loved me, because, as he held it, rolled up in one hand, and slapped his other fist with it, he was careful in his choice of words. It took him about 30 seconds to say "get a life, then we'll talk about it.
So I went and "got a life." The meaning of my life was unclear for years, however, because writing is most useful to people when it is used to lie. Lying sells. Truth is too easily dismissed as cliché by critics who are so superior to th
A book called PROPAGANDA. Written (and applied instead of news) during that bloody 20th Century we now think we have moved so far away from that it could not happen again.
I write because nobody took note when Edward Snowden warned the world that technological breaches of our privacy could very easily lead to "turn-key tyranny," as he called it. Only this time, when democracy falls, we may not even notice it. Perhaps it has already. Perhaps it hasn't. It is hard to tell when fake news confusion prevails, is it not?
Joseph Pulitzer wrote that "The republic and its Press will rise and fall together." Well, having worked as a journalist, I can say this for sure. Our press has, by-and-large, already "fallen." Especially in the United States. The last like of defense is Drama - good old stories. Yes, the ones Aristotle defined for us many thousands of years ago and which have driven every critical swing of our collective history. Stories may be entertaining. But they are not entertainment. They are freedom's LAST LINE OF DEFENSE against moral confusion, cynicism, and the corruption of our values, which has so many times led us to repeat the mistakes of the past and lead the world back into war.
The future of the democratic world is as not secure as my generation first assumed, in the 1990s, when the Berlin Wall fell, and the advent of the "information age" promised equal access to knowledge worldwide. Democracy had won, we assumed, because access to information was all voters needed to defy the lies that kept tyrants in power. Recently, we have learned that this assumption was incorrect. Apparently, the Germans and Austrians of the 1930s were not ill-informed. In fact, their cultures had produced some of the most eminent minds of the 20th Century. Their average level of education was higher than America's.
Today, Germany is on the right side of the fight for freedom. As is my native Scandinavia. A Danish judge spearheaded the fight against "cookies" - a funny name for spyware that tracks our every move, our every click, and the very PRIVACY which was a core value of America' founding fathers.
Cookies! How dumb do they think we are? And perhaps they're right... Hypnotized by entertainment that is too often devoid of values, America, the so-called "leader of the free world" elected a reality show host whose motto was: "you're fired."
They got fired all right. While hundreds of billions of dollars were send to large corporations and used to shore up Wall Street, Congress bickered about whether they merited $400 or $600 a month to live on. Families... And if your parents are illegal immigrants - illegal? In the land of immigration?
I write because there are more refugees in the world today than at any time in recorded History.
I write because I can't believe there is any greater priority in this world than how half of humanity treats the other -- because gender, equality before the law, is the true recipe for peace.
I write because I hate hating more than I hate haters. I write because I'd rather help them than kill them - but also because I'd rather not kill anyone, and yet I WOULD kill haters bent on violence. I know this deep in my soul.
I write because I believe in the human capacity for compassion and collaboration and change... And because I don't over-estimate it, either. We are selfish, aggressive animals. If spreading tolerance can be done with words, then everything I write, be it for Hollywood or corporations, should be infused with reasons to tolerate those who are different from ourselves.
I write because I don't believe political correctness serves the cause of freedom. It serves the cause of people who think they are holier than though. Dangerous people. I care not what party they are from. I hardly even believe in parties, except when we're down to two and one must be chosen in a fight, lest we give up the right to live.
I write because greater writers have come before me, but also because the quality of public speech, and the actual number of engaged readers in the world have decreased. I write for film when I believe an issue will not reach enough people unless it does so through entertainment of the most commercially viable kind.
I write because intellectuals bore me.
I write because humans are imperfect, and because we need to be reminded of it.
I write because when we all come to believe in a brave new idea, chances are it is neither brave nor new.
I write because I love ideas and hate ideologies. I like people and cry at Eulogies.
I write because good will is there, because some corporations understand that social responsibility is in their interest - that it will give them the best stories to tel about themselves. And that success always favors those with the most engaging and inspiring stories on their sides.
I write because the "yellow star" is back, only we don't see it. Private companies have more of our private information about us than the Waffen SS had about their enemies. And because Hitler's regime, too, was interested in our social "profile."
And ultimately, if I sometimes chose humor to treat the roots of dark problems, it is because I believe human beings are at their worst when they take themselves too seriously, and at their best when they can see their own flaws and laugh. THAT, to me, is the greatest agent of change I know to exist - and it is best produced by stories that help us identify with others, humanize others, as Harriet Beecher Stove did, when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.
I write because I am not a cynic. I write because I won't give up. And most importantly, I write because I learned the trade at the kitchen table, the son of two journalists. And because I can serve others, great leaders, managers and visionaries, whose craft it is not, yet who have stories to tell, which we need to know.
Cynicism has killed hundreds of millions of people in the 20th Century. It doesn't take a Ph.D. political science understand why. For me, all it took was a trip to the beach.