Thursday, February 4, 2016

Telling the Story

The day after the Iowa caucus, Simon wrote, "I liked yesterday's 50-50 totally mixed up Iowa Democratic caucus results. Today, however, seems to be the day of people trying way too hard to tell that story any different direction they can to help their team. I don't like that."

"Narrative imperialism" is a phrase coined by literary scholar James Phelan to describe the reduction of strings of narratives to a single story, an objection to if not a rejection of the notion of narrative identity—the idea that, as Oliver Sacks wrote, "Each of us is a singular narrative." I believe both things are true: We construct ourselves as a narrative to make sense of our lives (narrative identity), and we impose a narrative grid on things we can't explain (narrative imperialism). The reaction of different acolytes to the caucus is a perfect example of the latter.

Even Trump has now created his own story around his second-place loss. His story has become: I did not lose; my win was stolen from me. It's a perfect example of narrative imperialism, at least as I understand Phelan's construct. Trump's narrative identity is: I am a winner. The Iowa loss doesn't fit. Therefore, I cannot have lost, a villain must exist who stole the election. Luckily for Trump, Cruz makes an excellent villain.

Elections are competitions, or struggles, between opposing forces. The way we humans construct stories, if you're not the protagonist, or hero, and you are in opposition to the hero, as in an election campaign, you must be the antagonist, or villain. This is a ridiculously simplistic way to look at a complex contest, but it's drilled into us from childhood and passed down from the ancient past. It explains why certain people scoff at the notion of supporting whomever emerges victorious from the Democratic primaries. How could we ever support the villain of our tale?

We hire pollsters because we want to be able to predict the plots of our stories. We rely on the media to shape complicated contests into simple tales.

The results of the Iowa caucus were confounding enough to send story-lovers scrambling for a story grid to impose upon the outcome. It is unacceptable for a hero and villain to be as evenly matched as the two Democratic candidates were. The Hillary narrative became: She won handily. The Bernie narrative became: The results are debatable. Plot points abounded: Coin tosses! Blizzards! Bad polling!

What we miss in all this—all the media prognostication, all the polling, all the endless speculation in front of the TV—is that the rest of humanity doesn't know our narrative and thus is unlikely to fall in line. Voters are predictable only to a point. Anyone may change his or her mind at the last minute. Talking heads are paid to fit today's story into a mold from four or eight or sixteen years ago. Life is a lot more fluid, and people a lot more changeable, than the pundits would have you believe. We wanted Iowans to be the flat characters of folk tales—the farmer and his wife, the evangelical preacher, the first-time voter. It doesn't work that way. Our narrative identity is our own; it is influenced by but not written by others. And as much as Hillary and Bernie supporters want to make the primaries into an apocalyptic struggle between sexist pigs and corporate shills, between unrealistic dreamers and stick-in-the-mud pragmatists, between real and faux progressives, they are so much more complicated and interesting than those facile, tedious stories would have you believe.


mlutwak said...

My impression is that it's much more the media presentations of Hillary and Bernie supporters wanting to make the primaries into an apocalyptic struggle between sexist pigs and corporate shills.

I'm just not seeing the nastiness between the supporters that you see. I see defensive reactions to media reports about the others' supporters, but I find that the Bernie supporters that I know will fall into line behind Hillary and vice versa.

It's corporate media's job to turn things into simplistic narratives. I generally try to avoid it, except for ESPN, who do it better than anyone. At least their tales are uplifting.

KAZ said...

The fact that you're not seeing the nastiness proves only that you're clever enough to stay off social media and avoid reading comments on news sites. It's absolutely there. But your point about corporate media is exactly right, which is why I get my news from NPR, which at least takes the time to provide a tiny bit of context.

mlutwak said...

How representative of anything except the troll population are the people who fill up the comment space on new sites with vitriol?

KAZ said...

Sadly, the trolls are just the tip of the iceberg. Now we have young people reacting against gender feminism, people who should know better (and who would never cop to post-racialism) assuming a kind of post-gender America. Worse, people on the left spouting right-wing anti-Clinton talking points as though they just came up with them. I do believe that the Clintons set themselves up for this, and that it's just not possible to talk about one Clinton without the other. But I also think I've seen more out-and-out sexist blather over the past few months (which Albright and Steinem so clumsily tried to counter) than in the past several years. It's partly generational, but that's not the whole story. It's what my friend tapped into years ago when she correctly said we'd have an African-American president long before we ever had a woman. It's the "authentic" thing, and the "shrill" thing, and the "likable" thing, and the "tough as nails" thing.