Fiction, Fables & Stories

Michael Metzger

Those angered at the killing of George Floyd are working to end racism. They might benefit from the lessons learned by a new generation of war-game planners.

Anger at the killing of George Floyd has spurred useful reflection about race and perhaps some important police reform. But will it mark a turning point? It might if we note what military strategists learned in the aftermath of another turning point – the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The 9/11 Commission report cited a “failure of imagination” for why the US government failed to thwart the attacks. Imagination is the finely tuned intuitive sense essential to making strategic decisions. It was missing in 9/11, resulting in key information gaps for military strategists.

The military’s solution? Read some Shakespeare. A new generation of strategists is turning to fiction, fables, and stories to make better decisions. Charles Hill describes this in Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order. He notes how Paul Nitze, one of the leading architects of post-World War II foreign policy, studied Shakespeare in his spare time.

How can Shakespeare improve race relations? Consider Hamlet. Claudius murders Hamlet’s father, becoming king. Young Hamlet seeks to expose the crime. But he doesn’t accuse. He writes a play, letting it speak for itself, hoping one particular scene will prick Claudius’ conscience. “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

This is what the Clapham Sect did. The English Slave Trade was systemic racism. Clapham sought to abolish it. But they didn’t condemn slave traders. They commissioned Wedgwood to make a plate: AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER? Clapham let it speak for itself.

Clapham believed human beings have the capacity to care about the suffering of others. They felt exposing suffering through the arts would move people to action.[i] It worked. One historian attributed Clapham’s success to how it “evoked the conscience of the British people.”

Are the George Floyd videos a modern Wedgwood plate? They can be – if we let the videos speak for themselves. Using them to condemn others will likely lead to defensiveness on one side, arrogance on the other. In both cases, we narrow the range of imagined solutions, equivalent to the military’s failure of imagination in 9/11.

Second Shakespeare lesson: Most movements, over time, tend to overplay their hand. Is this happening? A lecturer at UCLA’s business school is facing investigation after reading in class Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It contains the n-word. At MIT, a chaplain was forced out when he suggested that, at this time, we don’t know for sure that racism is a major problem in police forces. He didn’t deny it. Just said we can’t be sure.

This chaplain is playing a role seen in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. He’s Dagonet. In Henry IV, Master Shallow playfully calls Dagonet a buffoon in “Arthur’s play” – a reference to the tale of King Arthur. Shakespeare wasn’t belittling Dagonet. He saw the court fool as the lone voice pointing out key information gaps to the knights of the Round Table. Dagonet widened how Arthur’s knights imagined the infighting and strife tearing the kingdom apart.

Most protest movements, over time, fail. They lose credibility by oversimplifying the problem or overplaying their hand. Shakespeare teaches us that. So does the Arthurian legend, which is why Walter Lippmann wrote, the best advisors “must whisper unpleasant truths in the master’s ear. It is the court fool, not the foolish courtier, whom the king can least afford to lose.”[ii]

Systemic racism is sin. It is a blight on our land. It must be repented of and eradicated. Protest leaders seeking to do this would benefit from having court fools whispering unpleasant truths in their ears. That’s a lesson learned by those who read fiction, fables, and stories.

[i] Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 198.

[ii] Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics (Good Press, 1913)


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  1. Great food for thought. A lot to process through about overplaying the hand and whispers. Also makes me think of Proverbs 15:1-2
    1 A gentle answer turns away wrath,
    But a harsh word stirs up anger.
    2 The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable,
    But the mouth of fools spouts folly.

    Need to take some time to think about my role.

  2. Black Lives Matter would benefit from emphasizing the imagination over reason and culture over politics. Recapturing the power of story is critical if one’s aim is to change another person’s conceptual frame. The resort to power politics and coercive tactics will backfire as it doesn’t engage the imagination of one’s opponent. Excellent post.

  3. Thanks for the read, Mike. In one of your source articles I found this quote: Knowledge without imagination can tell you where you are but not where to go”. It helped reinforce your insight.

  4. Thanks, Mike. Do you have any other resources on the important role of the imagination that you’d recommend?

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