Sunday, April 9, 2006

The power of narrative

I think Bush and a large part of the political and economic elite are (literally) careless with the national interest. People, who are not part of the ruling class, and even most, who are, are not going to know the details of exactly how they are being careless, or what a more circumspect and prudent policy would look like. What Bush et alia are doing is in the narrow interest of the corporate executive class, and that's all Bush et alia care about.

Regarding the particulars of something like the Dubai Ports deal or the Lenovo deal, and its relationship with national security, the devil is in the details, details too fine to get accurate media attention. In the Dubai Ports deal, the ability of port officers to verify the security of port operations depends delicately on small points of leverage, like whether business records are physically located in the U.S. Nobody cares about these details.

At the other extreme, at the broadest economic level, the rise of companies like Dubai Ports World and Lenovo reflect the effects of both global economic development and the effects of the budget deficit, the trade deficit and the abysmally low savings rate in the U.S. These are all indicators of a general policy, which has the effect of reducing the "equity stake" Americans have in their own government and economy. The best of American manufacturing is now owned by foreign multinationals, and the financial foundation of the federal government is slowly being undermined. Without any deliberation, the U.S. has embarked on a policy of disinvestment in itself; the security of the middle class is sacrificed, the national infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate.

On an even higher level, with the Republicans and their constituents in the boardrooms of Corporate America preoccupied with disinvestment and the rape of the middle class, even larger issues looming across the horizon are neglected: peak oil, global warming, the revolution in microbiology, etc.

People are at least vaguely aware of all these issue, but most people do not pay enough attention to have even the vaguest appreciation of what might constitute a more prudential direction. Even if you wanted to explain it, how could anyone tease out the differences between general trends in economic development globally and the particular effects of the U.S. policy of self-disinvestment, in terms the man-in-the-street-watching-CNN-for-a-few-minutes-in-the-afternoon could figure out?

We actually have things pretty good for the moment. None of the problems confronting the country is acute or intense. The trade deficit actually benefits us, reducing prices at Wal-Mart. The budget deficit benefits us, reducing taxes. The worst effects of global warming are a generation away. The blowback from our belligerance -- domination of the Persian Gulf by a hostile, nuclear-armed Iran or Saudi Arabia -- is at least ten years away.

The expectation of a "coming perfect storm" has become a common trope, for those opposed to the Bush Administration, precisely because to give meaning to any assertion made to a human being, you have to have a convincing narrative in which to place that assertion in context. "Bush's policy is bad" has to be supported by a narrative, which connects the present policy to a future, undesired consequence, because the present is actually passably decent. Some consequences of Bush policy are immediate, of course; the super-rich and America's CEO's are enriching themselves, now. But, they are not impoverishing too many people in the present; they are stealing from the future, to be sure, but the stealing in the present is kept, mostly, under control.

The current unpopularity of Bush has as much to do with the price of gasoline in rural and suburban Red America as it does with the idealistic concerns of urban Blue State liberals, because gas prices are now.

Any sensible policy would be somewhat painful right now: higher prices on imports, higher gas prices in particular, higher taxes, more personal saving and less spending. Since most people are not paying attention to anything but their own pocketbooks and convenience, there's not much scope for conscious deliberation and consideration of political issues. What we get instead is Lou Dobbs, expressions of anxiety and angry irritation that the politicians in Washington cannot be relied on to take care of these things. A much larger part of the public is not even listening to Lou Dobbs. A large proportion of Bush-voters are lost to fantasies about the end-times, as Deepak Chopra points out, and as Kevin Phillips points out.

It is not that Lou Dobbs misstates or is right or wrong on the merits; it is that he is a strange kind of well-intentioned demagogue. Part of him thinks he is doing good, serious work; part of him has his eye on the ratings, and shapes what he says and does, for its "entertainment" value in titillating an audience, which is anxious, without fully understanding why it's anxious.

Human beings are wired (no doubt genetically) primarily for storytelling, and only incidentally for (scientific) analysis. Somehow, in human evolution, we got from the simple emotions of dogs and apes to storytelling and myth-making, and from there to scientific analysis; we got from millenia of creation myths and music and epic poems and Bibles, to Newton and Darwin; we stumbled from asking "why?" and answering with poetry, music, tragedy and symbolic art, to asking "how?" and answering with logic and measurement and calculus.

Television and other forms of modern communication have given us way more storytelling than we can handle. We are choking on our storytelling, and particularly the competition among narratives. The very awareness of the importance of narratives is fairly novel; Derrida and the notion of critical deconstruction is only a generation old. The power of narratives conveyed by radio gave us the Second World War, in a sense, just as television gave us the fairly peaceful Cold War, which followed -- not "causing" either conflict, but shaping and powering them in important ways for all sides. The roiling of the Islamic World, is one huge crisis of modernity, brought on by television and the conflict between what is seen abroad and what exists at home and what is taught in the ancient, sacred narrative of Islam. A part of American Christianity cannot reconcile its embrace of the meaning of Biblical narratives of creation with the analytic "how" of Darwin; for them, Darwin must be a morally meaningful narrative, if it really is scientifically valid.

The blogosphere, particularly the Left blogosphere, is engaged in a critical challenge to the power of the narratives spun out by conventional journalism, including television journalism, even while the Right continues to experiment with Rush and Bill O.

Figuring out not only what's wrong with Lou Dobbs, but what constitutes, and how to have, a responsible public discourse is the critical task for this decade and the next. It may well settle whether human beings can continue with modern democratic self-government, and whether human beings will be able to assume responsibility for governing life and the evolution of life on the planet, without bringing about economic, political and (not least) ecological collapse. Being able to detach (in the Buddhist sense) from our narratives, and to embrace (and master) objective, scientific analysis is an important aspect of that task.

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