his week, I have read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. And it struck me that this book - indeed Hammett's world - is a valuable corrective to the dominant worldview of our time.
What I mean is that we all have unspoken preconceptions of how we see the world. One of the biggest of these is a simple Manichaeism: good vs evil, God vs Devil, right vs wrong, heroes vs villains, and so on.
Helen Lewis expressed this recently when shee tweeted that "I feel like Twitter encourages you to reject a writer if they are discovered to have the "incorrect" opinion on any topic": she wants writers to split nicely between good and bad. We see it too in the urge to ban things: "we" are right, "they" are wrong and so must be banned. I suspect it also lies behind reactions to Lena Dunham's account of looking at her sister's vagina: some feminists felt dissonance that one of their heroes could commit "child abuse" and some rightists rejoiced that another liberal turned out to be villanous (whilst the rest of us just saw normalish child behaviour and yawned).
You might think these are silly, trivial, examples. But we see the same thing in supposedly "serious" politics. The desire for a strong leader - usually an idealized version of ourselves - is the urge for a hero. And for years, we've seen it in foreign policy. When Communism collapsed, some cold warriors proclaimed the end of history and the triumph of liberal market democracy. The rise of Putin and the oligarchs disproved that. Not that many learned from this. Many western policy-makers have assumed that opponents of "baddies" such as Saddam, Assad and the Taleban were "goodies" and that the alternative to tyranny was liberal democracy rather than corruption, tribalism and religious bigotry.
It's in this context that Hammett is a great corrective. In Red Harvest, there are no heroes. The main protagonist is a liar, extortioner and murderer who reasonably fears that violence is turning him "blood simple", and alliances last only as long as self-interest warrants. This is surely a better template for our world than a simplistic "good vs bad" - and not just in the middle east.
Which poses the question. Why do we cleave to the presumption of Manichaeism rather than the Hammettian conception?* I suspect the answer lies more in psychology than in facts. We want to preserve what Richard Sennett called a purified identity and hunger for what Christopher Lasch called "psychic security". In an age of narcissism people want to believe - often without troubling to read a word of moral philosophy - that they are right and others wrong and the wish is the father to the thought.
* You might reply that we don't. Breaking Bad and The Wire both successfully rejected the heroes vs villains paradigm. But the point about those shows is that pretty much nobody watched them.