Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Power of Narrative

The advantage of having a regular column is that I actually bother to do some writing, as opposed to sitting on my couch reading books. The disadvantage is that in the unlikely event that I write about something timely, it's not always relevant by the time my column is published. So it is with this one, which seems to have gotten lost, but which, having already been written, will be posted here.

"With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand." Mark 4:33

Just as Jesus taught the crowds using parables, so modern American political discourse involves narratives. The parables were constructed to illustrate a truth which was hidden behind tangled reality. The people were better able to see how one ought to love one's neighbor after hearing of the good Samaritan. Political narratives operate differently: they serve to reinforce an ideology, by ensuring that any facts which may occur can be carefully woven into the narrative. In this way, no event can possibly upset the faithful; any conceivable action only serves to demonstrate the infallibility of the unquestioned ideology.

In the real world, politics is comprised of fallen human beings seeking to enact policies which reflect ideals; in this they often fail because other people possess opposing ideals which reflect apposite ends. The desire to allow the middle class family to retain most of its wealth is inconsistent with the desire to redistribute wealth among impoverished members of the same society. Hence politics is—and must necessarily be—something of a messy affair.

The narrative allows the populace to pretend that things are neat and tidy. On the one side are the forces of good, on the other, the forces of evil; think of Bush channeling his supposed Savior in insisting that anyone is either for or against America. Since this country—and, indeed, any country—is divided against itself, the dichotomy is false. It is easy to pick on Bush, but the left possesses a similar narrative, likewise neat and tidy, and similarly incompatible with the vicissitudes of reality.

To take a recent example: no sooner had the story of the Arizona shooter broke than the journalists insinuated that the act must have been the work of right-wing extremists. The theory was not without plausibility: after all, one of the woman shot was Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat. Ergo it must have been a crazy Republican, probably one of those Tea Partiers, the craziest of the bunch. That the criminal could fail to possess political motivation, or that a single incident could be insufficient to reinforce the superiority of the leftist position, was utterly beyond consideration.

Alas, the real story is that Loughner is a lunatic. In a piece by Nick Baumann in Mother Jones, a friend recounts that Loughner was angry that Giffords had failed to answer satisfactorily a question which he had posed to her during a 2007 campaign event. The question: "What is government if words have no meaning?" It proved impossible to intelligibly extract political implications from such palpable nonsense. This was unfortunate because the fabricated story fit perfectly into the narrative—compiled in advance for consumption by denizens of the left.

Yet, as is so often the case, the narrative is more important than the facts. The former, which is a creation of man, and therefore mutable, cannot be allowed to change; whereas the latter, having been settled in history, can be misrepresented to conform to the narrative. In short, things are precisely backwards. In this case, both sides—left and right—were compelled to contort themselves, trying to explain how this nut belonged to the other political camp. From the liberal point of view, that this particular incident had no connection whatsoever to the Tea Party did not imply that a specter of right-wing radicalism wasn't haunting America. Paradoxically, it proved it. The lack of Tea Party connection only meant that the next incident would surely evince the piece of missing evidence. Everyone knows that the Tea Party means to kill all the democrats. Why, Sarah Palin, even had targets over the heads of democratic members of Congress. Quod erat demonstratum.

The reality is that members of both the far right and the far left—whatever we mean by these terms—are capable of acts of violence. Of considerably greater importance, despite the vehemence of the rhetoric emanating from all points along the political spectrum, the American people are seldom motivated to commit acts of violence for political reasons. This is unfortunate for the fearmongers in television news, but the facts speak for themselves. We are constantly told that we are more divided than ever, and that the extremists will surely erupt in violence against those who have the temerity to disagree with them. Yet these eruptions remain extraordinary.

When the Lougher story blows over, we will return to our status quo of mutual distrust and paranoia. Eventually, another act of violence will occur, one which may even have political motivation. But while an isolated act will no doubt fuel the fires of antagonism which drives what passes for political discourse, it's hard to see what a single act is capable of proving. If a tea partier shoots up a Democrat's campaign office tomorrow, or someone who listens to NPR does the same, nothing will change, except for the unfortunate few who were personally involved in the hypothetical incident. Liberals recoil at the comparison, but it should be noted that tea partiers have utilized their ideology to attempt the same number of crimes as those who listen to public radio. Any inclination to be concerned over one group more than the other is a result of prejudice in favor of one's narrative. Neither adequately reflects reality.

And yet this is the test of a narrative. When Jesus crafted his parables, he was concerning himself with something true in the human condition. The whole purpose of the story was to make clear this truth. A testament to his success is that these stories are still read today. According to this metric, the political narratives fail. They do not aid us in our attempts to better interpret reality. Instead, they obfuscate facts, which are the only things upon which all parties should be able to agree. Intellectually honest individuals of all political persuasions should be wary of those who wield the narrative as a cover to avoid meaningful thought.

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