Saturday, February 21, 2009

On the insanity of narrative in American political culture

DelawareDem has a particularly insightful post up over at DL: Why We Are Shrill, in which I find a couple of sentences that are worth taking in a different direction (but one I don't think he'd mind).

Here are the parts that struck me:

But we did not win the right to control the narrative. That fight never ends. And we liberals and Democrats are at a disadvantage in that fight. Even now. Our friends on the right will simply laugh at this thought, for they will simply say that the media is liberal. First, that is lie. The media is not liberal or conservative generally, with the exception for Fox News, which is uniformly conservative to the point of being a literal propaganda station for the airing of the RNC’s talking points, and two shows on MSNBC, which can be described as liberal. want to define our national media with adjectives, then use “adversarial” and “lazy.” Especially our 24 hour cable news channels. All these channels do is discuss what the DC Chattering class is chattering about, without any independent analysis or challenge. That is where “narrative” is generated. In that bubble. And the competition to control that narrative is where we liberals are at a disadvantage....

So the fight to control the narrative is the key. And when faced with an adversary that has no problem lying with a straight face and no qualms, then you can see how we may sound “shrill” or angry, even though we won the election. For the controlling the narrative is the key to having the President who won the election actually implement his policies he campaigned on. Look at 1993 and 1994 if you want proof of that. President Clinton campaigned on universal healthcare, but lost control of the narrative in the effort to pass a bill, largely because the GOP, with an assist by insurance lobbyists with their “Harry and Louise” commercials fought for it, while Clinton and the liberals did not. I remember reading Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal’s autobiography where he discussed shooting a parody of the Harry and Louise ads, but instead starring Bill and Hillary Clinton, to be shown at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The ad was so good he was convinced if it had aired during the fight for universal healthcare, we would won the narrative, or at least neutralized the effectiveness of the right’s efforts. But they didn’t, and they lost that fight.

Working backwards, start with Clinton and healthcare. Nigel Hamilton's Bill Clinton: Mastering The Presidency makes three relevant points about that issue--relevant in the sense they are applicable today.

1) That it was losing the narrative on healthcare that made Clinton so sensitive to the concept of controlling the narrative (which in those days was often called triangulation) and accounted for many of his later successes....

2) Hamilton also attributes the rather rudderless feel of the first six months of the Clinton administration to the lack of a strong chief of staff to keep everything focused. Curiously, I have not seen or heard much about Rahm Emmanuel's role in the White House, which makes me wonder if he is really turning out the be the ass-kicker he has been portrayed as....

3) There were a tremendous number of other gaffes--in a political sense--to the Clinton healthcare debacle, but they don't invalidate DD's main point.

It's that concept of controlling the narrative that intrigues me now. In the postmodern internet world with a 24/7 news cycle we have reached the point where news organizations no longer tell us what happened, but spend most of their time attempting to interpret it. The original, now much-parodied Fox News slogan ("We report; you decide") is a conscious attempt to appeal to the nostalgia of news as news without interpretation, even whil Fox is one of the news outlets most obviously in the business of constructing narratives.

By moving into the intellectual framework of competing narratives, we risk not only losing touch with the truth, but losing touch with the very concept of objective truth. Take DD's comment about the right wing noise machine and how a usable narrative can be concocted out of unsubstantiated allegations, urban rumors, and outright lies. What DD is grappling with is something most of us don't want to think about--at least not consciously:

The only way that a convincing narrative--be it accurate or inaccurate in a factual sense--is by opposing it with an equally plausible narrative, and not by merely countering it with the truth.

Which also means, in very real, bare-knuckles political terms, that it is sometimes more effective to generate a counter-narrative that is plausible rather than a counter-narrative that is true.

This led me into two interesting places.

I read a short story called "Fellow Americans" by Eileen Gunn in an anthology called Alternate Presidents. In this one, Barry Goldwater had won the election in 1964, and Tricky Dick Nixon went on to become a famous late-night talk show host. His schtick was to hook himself up to a lie detector and see if he could field questions from the audience without setting it off.

Then there was Paul Newman and Sally Field in Absence of Malice, which made the point that newspapers printing a story don't have to know it's true; they only have to prove that they believed it to be true at the time of the printing in order to be absent the malice necessary for a slander/libel case.

Even if Tricky Dick passed the lie detector test (and we presume the lie detector worked), all we are guaranteed is that at the moment he took the test, he believed something to be true. We have no assurances that his beliefs were correct, or even that he continued to hold those beliefs.

So I have developed my three rules of political narratives:

1) Narratives need to be believable (plausible) more than they need to be true.

2) Narratives are more effectively countered by other narratives [for which, see rule 1] than by the truth.

3) In countering a narrative it is more important to attack its believability (plausibility) that it is to discredit its factual accuracy.

As I was writing this, I recalled what the original master of modern propaganda--Adolf Hitler--said in Mein Kampf. It's too late to dig it out for the direct quotation, so you'll have to excuse a paraphrase. Hitler said that political parties should campaign on no more that 5 or 6 positions. These positions should be stated in short, declarative sentences, and should not be changed even when proven wrong or outmoded. Hitler reasoned that you would lose more voters by changing your positions than you would lose by holding debunked positions, because he believed that voters were intellectually lazy and often substituted the comfort of consistency for an understanding of the truth.

Which led me back to the Catholic Church. There is a prevailing social-conservative narrative that homosexuals are pedophiles. Virtually no data supports this traditional belief: over 98% of male pedophiles turn out to be heterosexuals. But the narrative of homosexual pedophiles is so firmly engrained that the action the Church took to stop pedophilia was an increased effort to throw homosexuals out of the seminaries. Because is struck many people (especially social conservatives) as plausible, most of them are well-insulated against factual arguments to the contrary. Queers prey on little boys, mister. I don't care about your fancy sta-tis-tics, I got common sense on my side.

So back to DelawareDem who is both eeriely right and agonzingly prescient. The battle today is a battle to control narratives rather than a battle over the truth. And most liberal Democrats have yet to face up to the fact that facts don't matter anywhere near as much as believability and plausibility.

But, DD, don't feel bad: at least you're in the game, and have a general understanding of the rules.

My fellow libertarians can't even agree on the broad outlines of a plausible libertarian narrative: they are still intellectually back in the day of supposedly objective truth.


Waldo said...

Maybe Rahm Emmanuel has figured out the wisdom of the Brownlow Report of 1934 on presidential staffing- that a successful president needs capable people with a passion for anonymity.

Anonymous said...

"over 98% of male pedophiles turn out to be heterosexuals."

by what measure? by what convoluted defenition is a man who molests boys a "hereosexual"?

Miko said...

Two thoughts:

1) Limiting campaigning points isn't a bad idea for a third-party, not because we want to hide the truth, but for the simple reason that we have less press time and it's more important to get key ideas across, especially if we want the existing parties to steal them (which we do; hopefully they'll eventually both converge on libertarian ideas and then become indistinguishable again). Ideally, there should be maybe one or two ideas that will appeal to the dissatisfied left and one or two that will appeal to the dissatisfied right. (Balance is especially important: otherwise, every interview becomes "So, you're a spoiler for X; aren't you worried that Y will win?") In 2008, we should have been talking about nothing except opposition to imperialistic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan/etc., ending the Patriot Act and reforming/ending (probably the former) FISA, and opposing the bailouts. A few key issues of critical importance, chosen specificially to highlight what's wrong with each of the two major party candidates. Sure, we can have an issues section on our candidate's website, but I would rather have not heard a word spoken on any issues but those.

2) I'll stick with objective truth, even if it isn't effective. There are some tactics whose very use makes victory Phyrric. If we can't win with the truth, we don't deserve to win.

Eileen Gunn said...

Hey, thanks for citing my story, "Fellow Americans."

It was written in 1989, and to some extent, it argues that there are larger forces that dominate the history of the world than who is the American president. After eight years of the Bush administration, I am convinced that a bad American president and his administration can make a huge difference for the worse in the lives of people all over the globe. I don't think there are too many people who would argue differently now.

On the question of whether, within the story, the lie detector work,: I think Dick Nixon is pretty confident that his lies are undetectable. He says, at the end, "This is television. We don't need lie detectors."

Thanks again for noticing that the story is about examining the stories that we tell ourselves about American politics. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.


Steve Newton said...

You're quite welcome. That was the one story from Alternate Presidents that stuck with me for the 20 years since I first read it....