Kathleen Parker

Even though the elections are finally behind us, something happened this season that deserves a second look.

I'm talking about the tactics of Sen. George Allen of Virginia, whose campaign tried to cast his opponent, Jim Webb, as unsuitable because of his fiction writing.

As was widely discussed at the time, the Allen camp issued a press release with carefully selected passages from novels Webb wrote based on his experiences during the Vietnam War. Some of the passages are, indeed, unseemly and disturbing, including one suggestive of incest.

Others apparently selected to demonstrate the author's sexist attitudes described women in sex-related activities, including some unusual stage acts best left to the imagination.

I have no interest in defending Webb's writing, though his work has been lavishly praised by writers such as Tom Wolfe. But we all have an interest in defending literature and art against the kind of literal-mindedness that undergirds this sort of political tactic.

For the benefit of those who require some assurance of verisimilitude, much of what Webb wrote is not unfamiliar to Vietnam vets. Family and friends returning from Southeast Asia following the war recounted similar tales, some of which I heard myself. Webb said during a radio interview that he personally witnessed what he described.

It's usually interesting to hear an author discuss his work but, in this case, I don't care. More troubling than anything Webb wrote is the idea that a novelist aiming for public office -- or any occupation -- should have to explain what he had in mind while writing fiction.

And far more perverse than a staged sex act in a wartime novel is our incremental trending toward literalness at a time when literal-mindedness is the blunt instrument of those trying to drag Western civilization into a new dark age.

We should all wreathe ourselves in garlands of garlic before accepting Allen's premise that examining fiction for insights into a writer's character is fair game in an ideologically inflamed world. Didn't Torquemada exhaust the market for this sort of thing?

Lest the literalists protest, no, I'm not comparing George Allen to Spain's Grand Inquisitor. And, no, I'm not comparing America's political strategists to Osama bin Laden.

But there's not much distance between the sort of attitude that instigates offense from a literal reading of fiction and that which justifies death to infidels in a literal reading of scripture. We've witnessed where this kind of moral mind-reading leads.


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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