Monday, August 8, 2011

Narratives . . . Or the Lack There of

Discourse is the beginning of a society, a conversation between members of that group. Founding stories or narratives of how that discourse began and what was said make up a "founding narrative" which we as a group build on from there. America has a founding narrative and a series of narratives that have been added on since. Stories of course are not actual factual accounts, since nobody remembers an event exactly the same way, each has his own perspective and what they thought most important and least important and rarely do those points all match across a group.

Still a common narrative holds a political community together, gives it a past and a current purpose.

When narratives begin to get confused, drowned out by the massive Wurlitzer of propaganda, or when language takes on new meanings to obscure narrow interest (as Thucydides showed us in his classic history) society starts to break down. If this is not arrested, if a coherent narrative is not able to gain ground, then perhaps dissolution is the unavoidable result.

I came across this which ya'll may find interesting . . .

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.” A story isn’t a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

But there was no story — and there has been none since. . .

Read the whole article, even if you don't agree with it. It's an attempt at something we could all use, perhaps.

I'm currently working on a strategic theory paper about Martin Luther King's strategy of non-violent direct action. In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, he wrote in 1958:

The racial issue we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem. The citizenship rights of Negroes cannot be flouted anywhere without impairing the rights of every other American. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. A breakdown of law in Alabama weakens the very foundation of lawful government in the other forty-seven states. The mere fact that we live in the United States means that we are caught in a network of inescapable mutuality. Therefore, no American can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial justice. It is a problem that meets every man at his front door. The racial problem will be solved in America in the degree that every American considers himself personally confronted with it. Whether one lives in the heart of the Deep South or on the periphery of the North, the problem of injustice is his problem; it is his problem because it is America's problem . . .

Today in all too many Northern communities a sort of quasi-liberalism prevails, so bent on seeing all sides that it fails to become dedicated to any side. It is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed. A true liberal will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say, 'Slow up for a while; you are pushing things too fast.' I am not calling for an end to sympathetic understanding and abiding patience; but neither sympathy nor patience should be used as excuses for indecisiveness. They must be guiding principles for all of our actions, rather than substitutes for action itself. pp 193-4

It's time we got back to basics imo, basic political questions as to how we wish our government and our society to be . . . or not be.


  1. Seydlitz,

    It's about time that someone appreciated MLK as a tactician. What follows are an old man's memories about on of these actions.

    Except for a few lunch-counter sitins, the Meredith March was my introduction to passive, non-violent resistance.

    As best memory recalls, there were maybe 200 of us, mostly black working people, with some medical personnel from New York, and a few white folks, locals or near-locals. One elderly white-haired lady said she had been a segregationist all her life, but decided that she had been wrong. Those Mississippi folks acted on what they believed.

    We sang the old songs, "We shall overcome" and the like. There was one song beginning "Mississippi justice cold and deep..." We were very mindful of the the two civil rights workers, whose names escape me now, whose bodies had recently been found, interred in an earthen dam.

    At night we camped on church properly. Black people would drive up and bring us food. We couldn't buy anything. Several towns went so far as to shut off their water supplies as we went through. And young whites patrolled the area with miniature baseball bats, clubs about 16 inches long. Black people watched us from their front porches, saying nothing, blankets over their knees in the August heat.

    The Deacons for Defense patrolled the area in depth to prevent entry. They had radios and, it was rumored, weapons. An ex-Army sergeant from Louisiana was in charge of the outfit.

    White Citizens Council members drove slowly by in their large cars, drinking whiskey from paper cups and burning crosses at night. The FBI was there, sweating in their dark suits, their cars overheating because of the slow pace. They despised us and we reciprocated by mocking them.

    I remember being afraid and appalled at the sacrificial role that the leadership had cast upon us. The movement counted, not the individuals who made it up. If denied a permit to go through a town, we went anyway, confronting the police. We were, in that sense, shock troops. Later in the army I was reminded of that when our instructor demonstrated how a platoon would take out a machine gun position. Half of the men would move in under fire while the others covered.

    One Saturday morning we drew up in front of the courthouse in some little Mississippi town. The authorities had refused to issue a parade permit. Maybe a half hour of so of negotiations followed, when Stokely Carmichael broke the tension by yelling, "Look at that Confederate flag! I'm taking it down!" And he broke ranks and shimmied up the flagpole, ripping the flag off. The cops were waiting below. When Stokely came down, they beat him with their billy clubs and dragged him to off to jail. But that somehow defused the issue and we were allowed to proceed.

    Turns out that the flag was the Mississippi state flag. The joke was on us.

  2. seydlitz,
    ISTM that we Amies have substituted voting for dialogue. We confuse the two.
    We also think voting is a sign of a democracy but i'm wholly opposed to this myth. Voting just creates the myth/illusion of freedom/democracy.
    Example-i'm in a Comfort Inn in Priceville Al. and the motel has the news on Faux. This is the only channel they use. Where's the dialogue.?
    I addressed this issue in my post COWBOYS AND ALIENS on RAW. Maybe i shouldda put it on the Pub since your cmts are pretty in tune with my sentiments.
    Back to my point. Voting is a killer of dialogue for the reasons that you've mentioned.
    Wouldn't it be ironic if voting leads to our demise.?!
    If we can't pick adult leaders then maybe we deserve a fall.

  3. Paul-

    The three civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia, MS were Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Mickey was a neighbor, two years ahead of me in school and a friend. Thank you for helping to keep their memories alive.


    An excellent post and indicative of how adrift we are as a society.

    All for one, but none for all.

  4. And maybe I should read new posts before shimmying down the pole here.

    I put a link above in Aviator's post that echoes what your bit says here. 4th one, IIRC.

    What puzzles me about our whole situation here, is that Obama himself is a living breathing symbol, an avatar if you will, of the work laid out by those heroes of the republic near half a century ago, retold in Paul's excellent post.

    Why Obama's actions and policies haven't aligned with that struggle is the puzzle.


  5. Podunk Paul-

    Thanks for sharing that memory with us. That's exactly what the movement needed to keep its momentum, from a strategic theory perspective, a disciplined force willing to "take their fair share of abuse" or even more.

    I did a post on MLK as strategist last year. The response was positive so I'm expanding it into a full paper.

    It all makes you wonder what it would take to get people mobilized like that again? You'd think we have enough potential causes . . .

  6. I think that when you look at the big picture of U.S. history what you'll see is that for much of the time we look like we do today; haphazard, either confused, indifferent, or quarreling. Only a handful of "big event" moment have had the effect of "mobilizing the People", and even then...

    IF you believe historians no more than about a third of the population here in 1775 were active patriots; another third were Royalists and (hard to believe but) the remainder just wanted to sit the fucker out.

    The Civil War mobilized the hell out of the People - and about a third of them mobilized for the wrong side. I'd argue that a hell of a lot of the people who are telling the ridiculous "ZOMFG Obama is a Socialist!" lies are descendents both literal and intellectual of this same group.

    OTOH, the Depression didn't really "mobilize" the People other than in the way jim describes; they voted for the New Dealers, and about 3/4 of Americans developed a deepseated loathing for the GOP who had driven them into and then left them lay in the economic ditch for three years.

    WW2? Yeah, but not much choice there, really.

    Civil Rights? Vietnam? Not really; lots of divisions there, some of which we're still living through and paying for.

    I'd argue that what this late business shows has changed is not so much the "national narrative" (various political groups in this country have always had either different narratives or different interpretations of the same story) but the consensus at the federal political level on what is acceptable as maneuvering for partisan gain. Prior to this the only time the actual functionality of the federal government was ever questioned was in the decade leading up to 1860. The Southern slaveocracy continually threatened disunion and a slew of other governmental tricks to get their way until the election of what they saw as a hard-line antislavery Republican made them think that Lincoln would actually let them pull the trigger rather than back down...and so they DID pull the trigger and we all know what happened then.

    This time, though, without actually incurring disunion the teatards and the GOP tools have accepted that it is permissible to threaten the physical functions of the U.S. government in order to obtain internal gains; they have, in effect, repeated the national narrative of the 1850s - with Obama as Buchanan - and now the only question becomes will the public ever bother to elect another Lincoln and force these fucking idiots to blow the entire farrago sky-high?

  7. Well, to get people out into the streets they have to overcome their basic fear of looking stupid (along with some other reasonable fears like getting arrested, but the fear of looking like a doofus is the dominant fear in most people)

    It takes some leadership and a few people able to overcome their basic fears. It then takes communications so that everybody else can see their courage (and that other people are joining in).

    As more people stop being afraid, it is easier for other people to gain their courage and you get a snowball effect.

    Here is a wonderful video on how this can happen

  8. I suppose I need to express this all a bit more clearly. Chief brings up some good points that need clarification.

    Btw, Ael, I guess we're all just waiting for that lone nut . . .

    A political community has a founding narrative and then successive narratives following, but these go through a series of reinterpretations over time as the society and culture change. Thus we see the Civil War differently then did the generation which actually fought it. Same with the Industrial revolution, Square Deal, WWI, Boom and Bust, Great Depression, WWII . . .

    You get the idea. Consider for example how the Vietnam War has gone through a series of reinterpretations on our own lifetimes. Perhaps Al, jim, Publius, or mike would like to comment on that . . .

    I was lucky enough to grow up with a group of people for whom the Great Depression was their defining experience. Not, WWII, which was considered "easy" in comparison, but only in comparison. Growing up I heard all sorts of stories from both family and friends about those times and how they shaped the people who lived them. I miss those folks since I think our current condition would have been impossible to have stumbled into had they been around in significant numbers.

    Too bad about that.

  9. Paul-, please.

  10. Seydlitz: I think perhaps the most significant change in the "national narrative" is the passing of the Depression generation. Those people saw what the wealthy did to the nation, and they while they forgave, they never forgot. Most of them considered the truly wealthy as dangerous as a monkey with a vial of nitroglycerine, and as careless.

    Right now we're being ruled by the Boomers, whose "national narrative" has always been "Bigger is better" and "More for me". No surprise that the brakes the scalded Depressionites put on were yanked away.

    Plus - and I've mentioned this here before - the people of the 30's and 40's were fundamentally pessimistic. They had seen the world full of people at their worst, and believed (if their actions are proof of beliefs) that the best thing a government could do is stand between the greedy and feckless rich and the political looneys and those of the public least able to protect themselves.

    As those people passed away so did their skeptical and bleak outlook, and their successors have allowed the grifters and the fools to reassume the levers of power again.

    And here we are...


    Kevin Drum disagrees:

    Beyond this, I think Westen misses the big point. The problem isn't that Obama didn't have a story. He did, and he told it pretty well. His story was one about the dysfunctional partisanship destroying Washington and how to move beyond it. You might not like that story, but it was there. And while it obviously didn't succeed in moving the needle on partisanship, it did allow Obama to produce a pretty decent set of legislative achievements. As much as two years of anti-conservative stemwinders would have thrilled me, I doubt they would have produced anywhere near as much.

    Drum has a point here, but narratives need to be consistent to have a responsive audience. Obama told us his narrative in the 2008 campaign, but he veered from that, IMHO, and after the 2010 "shellacking", tossed his original narrative aside.

    DC has always had dysfunction, but with the Teapublicans in the House, that dysfunction has turned into a way of life, and Obama has yet to deal effectively with it.


  12. Chief:

    Plus - and I've mentioned this here before - the people of the 30's and 40's were fundamentally pessimistic.

    You and s69 may find this interesting:


  13. The evil middle digit of my right hand overcame the righteousness of the index finger.

    That's my story, er, narrative.


  14. "It's time we got back to basics imo, basic political questions as to how we wish our government and our society to be . . . or not be."

    But Seydlitz, the Tea-Party has spoken, damn the light house, damn the rocks and hidden shoals, damn the passengers, and damn the captain we're riding this one all the way to the cliffs!

    I think we need to come to grip...the fucking Tea-Party/Libertarians are insistent on demolishing the United States of America, returning it into something it never was to begin with, and rebuilding on a foundation that wouldn't hold their breath, much less their ideas.

    No, we either expose these people, or we acknowledge that we are heading towards a devastating succession of states seceding from the union.
    That or the union dissolves all on it's own by the weight of our collective selfishness, and incompetence.

  15. Which is a clear distinction sheer . . . Which is what we are dealing with here. This goes in line with what FDChief is talking about.


    Who am I to draw any conclusions . . . ?