So in sense it shouldn't surprise anyone that our understanding of what monsters are has evolved. The problem, it seems to me, is that not all evolution is synonymous with improvement. About a decade ago, Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco wrote an elegant book, "The Death of Satan," in which he argued that America had lost the ability to speak in terms of evil. He called it a "tragedy of the imagination," and he was right.
For decades, a therapeutic culture of "understanding" was on the rise. Except for acts of racism and so-called homophobia, there was a mad rush to "understand" evil people. Were they victims of a racist culture? Were they abused themselves? Were they expressing their natural frustration with the patriarchal capitalist system? Blah, blah, blah.
The tragedy of the imagination was that we couldn't appreciate that evil is real and it exists. In a society where everyone is a victim and it's not right to "judge" others, there's just not much room left for real monsters, while society itself becomes monstrous. Hannibal Lecter became a charming rogue, the Grinch who Stole Christmas became the victim of the judgmental Whovilleans in the Jim Carrey movie, the ersatz Mayberry of Andy Griffith became a nest of fascists in "Pleasantville."
In international affairs, I think 9/11 stemmed the worst of this rot. You can now call people who proudly declare war on democracy, behead innocent people, and yearn to murder women and children "barbarians" without much fear of politically correct blowback. This is good, because a moral compass must have some familiar stars.
But at home we still don't have a good vocabulary for monsters like the Dollars. We can call them monsters, but it doesn't have the same effect anymore because the gears have been stripped from the word.
But, you know, it's funny. I think we want - and need - a word for monsters. For example, my 2-year-old daughter has never seen a film or a book that would give her the impression monsters as a group are evil, while she's been inundated with the notion that they're good and friendly. And yet this lover of "Sesame Street" is still afraid of monsters. She will use the word and ask me to scare them away.
I always oblige, and I never tell her monsters aren't real. I just scare them away and give her a hug. But she's smart beyond her years. She knows monsters are real.
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