Thursday, May 12, 2011

Democracy, Osama bin Laden and the power of stories

Revenge Narratives need good heroes.
By Barry Johnson

A post here last week suggested that the events surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden conformed to those of a Hollywood Revenge Narrative -- the villain does something unspeakably evil, the hero doggedly tracks the villain to his lair where the villain plots even more unspeakably evil acts, and in a final battle, the hero defeats the villain and saves mankind (or his daughter).  Mostly, the post meditated on how such a reduction, such a simple moralistic tale, blinds us to reality, not to mention more effective courses of action.

I was thinking of this reduction as the sort of thing that governments do as part of their PR campaigns and that news agencies employ because of how easily the stories connect to their audiences. I didn't imagine that the Bush Administration actually believed the narrative they spun. Surely, they understood that the real story of bin Laden was more complex than they let on and had a more pragmatic eye on the geo-political consequences of their actions than a Hollywood hero obsessively seeking out his prey, regardless of the bullets whizzing by his ear.

Kurt Andersen in New York magazine was thinking about the narrative of Osama bin Laden along similar lines:
But still, as a narrative, it was an over-the-top one-day conclusion to what had started as a whacked-out, over-the-top potboiler and had then turned into a different fictional genre, modern and artier, like the TV series and movies that riveted us during the decade Osama went missing, ­fictions that seemed realistic and great because they were dark and unsettling, without the bad guys necessarily getting their just deserts: The Sopranos, The Wire, The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men. Finally, shockingly, the bin Laden story snapped back into familiar, tidy, old-fashioned storytelling mode à la James Bond and 24. 
Andersen goes one step farther, though. He thinks the Revenge Narrative took over the thinking of the Bush Administration, and not just its selling of its policies and actions. "And I don’t think it’s crazy to think that those pop-­cultural archetypes not only frame the public understanding of the events but actually shaped the events themselves." He notes that President Obama understands the power of stories and perhaps even considered becoming a novelist himself.

"The stories we tell and retell—­fictional, nonfictional, hybrids of the two—really do inform important choices we make," Andersen writes. "They matter."


Now, Andersen is speculating here. He doesn't have any particular evidence to support the idea that President Bush and then President Obama unconsciously slipped into the Revenge Narrative (my term, not Andersen's) because it's such an archetype.  But no one connected to the business of communication, the Persuasive Arts, would argue against his proposition.

Somehow, we seem hard-wired to make narratives out of our experience AND to project ourselves into the narratives of others, especially if they are skillfully told -- by a storyteller at the campfire or by a Hollywood blockbuster.  And why not? A good story gives us psychological insight, a sense of the lay of the physical land, a larger social context, an underlying moral ground and maybe a practical lesson or two.

I think we distrust stories, too, maybe because we know how susceptible we are to them. We look for evidence to verify or disprove them because we know a good story can be a lie. But studies have shown that sometimes a story is so powerful for us that we ignore clear evidence against it. The Birther Phenomenon is like that. We don't want to go poking around some stories because so much of our view of the world is tied up in them.


Democracy is problematic because of the power of false stories. They lead us astray -- to a war in Iraq, for example. But no other system allows the systematic testing of stories, either. A proper democracy is a testing ground of information and stories -- at least as far as public policy is concerned. That's why democracy needs to be protected from private interests with the massive amounts of money it takes to   to construct and repeat a particular story until more than 50 percent of us believe it's true.
That isn't democracy; it's something else.

Are all stories "false"?   All stories leave out information, some of it pertinent. In a proper democracy we are always re-telling stories to make them better, to make them more accurate, to give us a better idea about what to do next. We tell stories to figure out what to do next. A "true" story is simply the best one we can tell given the evidence before us. Unfortunately, sometimes the most effective story isn't true at all ("Osama bin Laden is living in a cave") and the voices of those who say otherwise (Iraq has nothing to do with Bin Laden) are drowned out, even considered seditious. Which is why dissent is protected in a democracy -- sometimes it contains the seeds of a better, truer story.

When we went into Revenge Narrative mode, we started backing away from our commitment to a free, open, democratic society. My hope is that the death of the Villain will allow us to recommit to our principles.  My fear is that another Villain will take his place.

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