John Schreiber: Classic literature offers solutions for today's woes
Reading is a dying art. Of course, people will still read short news feeds and Facebook posts, but I'm talking about true reading: taking a literary text and applying it to one's life.
Over recent years, if leaders had read and understood literature, they would have made different choices. William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" will show you what I mean. The novel depicts boys trapped on an island; common sense is overrun by common fear, resulting in destructive desires, such as lust, greed or racism.
According to Golding, a democracy is easy to create but hard to maintain. It needs strong support to stand up to fear, greed and hate. If George W. Bush had understood this, our country would not have charged into Iraq, even if Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction. Why hold back? Because, according to Golding's novel, creating a democracy in a country that has experienced hate and ethnic strife is nearly impossible without a total military occupation.
Fast-forward to 2013 when Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, in a Nov. 4 Time magazine interview, looked back on the financial crisis of 2008. In that interview, Greenspan admitted his economic beliefs were once "based on the presumption that human beings are rational in that they look after their long-term self-interest." If he had read Golding, he would not have needed a financial meltdown to teach him that people do not always take the long-term view. If he had been enlightened by literature's common sense, he could have taken steps to prevent the economic disaster.
Throughout his novel, Golding shows a democracy is fragile and may shatter in the face of a demagogue who manipulates fear. We see Western politicians gain followers when people fear terrorists, and Middle East dictators stay in power by fomenting fear of Americans. As Golding demonstrates, fear unites people but destroys common sense, and not for the better.
Take the recent climate talks in Paris. Someone only needs to strike a resonating note of fear — saying, for example, that President Barack Obama wants to create a One World Government — and those who share that fear will pollute rather than work together to decrease carbon emissions.
Take the recent talk of gun control. Rather than work at finding common-sense solutions, pluck the string that government wants to take away all guns, and people will run like lemmings down the street to get gun permits and stockpile bullets.
This brings me back to the importance of literature. The pen can't be mightier than the sword if no one reads what the pen writes. Reading literature lets us vicariously experience the weaknesses in human nature, allowing us then to act with wisdom. Unlike Greenspan, we won't have to use hindsight.
If we avoid knee-jerk reactions to fear, unlike the boys in Golding's classic who burn down their world, we can find common-sense solutions to our nation's problems.
John Schreiber, of West Concord, is a member of the Post-Bulletin's Community Editorial Advisory Board.