Monday, July 06, 2009

NARRATIVE, SPIN, AND REALITY

The above words – and I include also ‘narrative’ with a small ‘n’ – are close to the heart of Our present situation, Our ‘modern American reality’ as it were.

So a few thoughts.

In a tactical sense, you want to be able to ‘control the narrative’ of some situation; you want to be able to ‘spin’ it in a way that gets people thinking about it in the way that you want them to a-n-d thus not in any other way, that you don’t want them to.

This is essentially a form of advertising, which is to say a form of trying to manipulate somebody’s opinion of something.

It can be applied to political matters as well as selling commercial products. And on a mass level, across an entire society or large chunks of it, so that it’s a form – politically – of propaganda. Certain persons – almost always organized in some way – want to manipulate you through your opinion – or maybe just your emotions, eliminating the ‘middle man’ of you doing your own deliberating about the matter. So eliminating that ‘middle man’ pretty much means eliminating you – the target – as a political player, as a Citizen with certain responsibilities to a vital role in how constitutional government and a democratic politics really work.

Much thought – some of it brilliant – has been put into the theory and practice of doing this. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s dark genius in this sort of thing, had an entire nation and government at his complete disposal for over a decade and demonstrated his theories in practice. He got many of his ideas from the American advertising whiz Edward Bernays, who himself derived some rather significant thoughts from one Gustav LeBon, a French thinker of the 1890s (about whom I will soon Post); Le Bon gave much acute thought to the behavior of crowds.

So, tactically, you want to control the ‘narrative’, the ‘spin’, ensuring that your ‘story’ is most attractive. Commercial advertisers can only go this far: they can try to influence your opinion by making their product more attractive; they achieve this – they hope – by making their ‘story’, their ‘spin’ of their product more attractive than any of their competitors’ ‘stories’.

Perhaps they try to prove ‘scientifically’ the better quality of their product; but they realize that people don’t always make decisions based merely on ‘thinking’ – humans are emotional as well as rational, so they are susceptible to a catchy phrase, a musical jingle that sticks in the mind, an attractive celebrity or character who becomes attached in the viewer’s mind to the product that the sellers are trying to sell.

But governments have more options. The almost-automatic respect that most folks accord their government gives it a huge advantage in trying to put its own ‘spin’ on a current event or a government initiative.

But a government – as Goebbels demonstrated – also has the control-power to override other, competing ‘narratives’ or ‘stories’ about that event or that initiative. It can work in a ‘soft’ way to pressure national media to either ‘report’ only the negatives of competing ‘narratives’ and the positives of its own ‘narrative’. And – as Goebbels demonstrated – it can also use the legislative and police power of the government to suppress competing ‘narratives’. This is something advertisers can only dream about. The overall term for this, derived from the Leninist and Stalinist revolutions (from whom Goebbels picked it up) is ‘Political Correctness’: some ideas are simply labeled as not-Correct, and sanctions hard and soft are imposed on persons who still try to think about those ideas and about their nature and consequences.

Such influence can be – and in modern democracies almost has to be – masked. Thus the government’s ‘narrative’ can be uniformly presented as a ‘good’, and the competing ‘narratives’ as dumb, misinformed, or even ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. The stifling dynamic of Political Correctness is presented as progress and a public benefit.

Clearly, too, this type of government-supported pressure can be deployed by persons or groups seeking to do something they genuinely believe is ‘good’ (but that the average citizens might not be enlightened enough so see as ‘good’). And of course, a government initiative that is deliberately put into the ‘alpha position’, whether or not it’s actually been determined to be ‘good’ for the nation, is also a candidate for being raised up as the ‘Correct’ thing. Hence, manipulation in the support of dubious or unripe ideas and initiatives, so dangerous to a healthy democratic politics, can come from those who seek to do ‘good’ as well as from a ‘government’ merely seeking to impose its will on the citizenry to whom – in theory – it is accountable and who – in theory – govern the government.

So much for the tactical level of the thing.

But there is also a strategic level.

The French ‘deconstructionist’ thinking of the early postwar period took the whole thing to a whole new level: there is no ‘reality’ that you are trying to ‘spin’ – rather, there is nothing but a moosh of shapeless ‘opinion’ at the heart of history and human events (and maybe at the heart of the human individual self too). And that moosh is therefore the ‘clay’ that must be given shape. This is where ‘narrative’ becomes ‘Narrative’.

At the level of Narrative, you are trying to manipulate people’s very fundamental vision of reality (after all, when it comes to ‘reality’, say the deconstructionists, there is no ‘there there’). Everything becomes a matter of ‘what you think’ about something; or – even more ominously – what you feel about something.

And these are very big ‘somethings’: the nature of human being and of human beings, what forces or ideals shape how humans judge events and the assumptions about ‘reality’ that are so deeply a part of their judgment-apparatus .

The deconstructionists therefore didn’t believe in Ideals, Virtues, Laws, or even non-material being or Being; they were heirs of the materialist focus of 19th-century Western thought that eventually culminated in the this-worldly focus of Marx, whose theories were put into practice by Lenin. But American thought in the 19th century also had a strong materialist tinge: the ‘Pragmatists’ believed that an ‘idea’ (not to be called a Virtue or an Ideal or anything else with a capital letter) is ‘true’ only if it ‘works’; and – being in the middle of a budding commercial industrialism – such an ‘idea’ would only ‘work’ if it attracted the approval of many ‘consumers’; it was all about marketing – which you could study and ‘prove’ scientifically (as opposed to ‘belief’ which you couldn’t).

Not that the Materialists and Pragmatists would actually say that they ‘believed’ this; to them ‘belief’ itself was some sort of weird emotional dysfunction, not ‘scientific’ at all (except for newly developed psychology to study). They didn’t ‘believe’ anything because – really – there was nothing to be ‘believed’; to ‘believe’ in something is to say that it has its existence based in some realm that is beyond the material, that is accessible to some immaterial human ability to perceive its presence somehow. And this was – to them – nothing more than ‘emotion’, superstition, and religion in general. They were all simply weird, mushy, unscientific leftovers from a more ‘primitive’ age of humankind; ‘science’ was the only ‘real’ tool, and it could only study the material world. So, they assumed, anything not-material is not ‘real’.

And everything is up for grabs. (Which is never ever a good thing to tell a government, by the way).

This ‘deconstructionism’ originally took hold only in a few places; mostly universities, where folks have a lot of time on their hands to play around with theories. But curiously, not in university science departments. After all, in the science departments, you have to deal with the ‘laws of science’ – such as how water behaves at various temperatures (a gas, a liquid, a solid) and what makes an airplane fly and keeps it flying. These ‘realities’ actually did appear to be ‘realities’ and in science there most certainly appeared to be ‘laws’ that could even be called Laws (Newton’s Laws, for example).

But in the literature departments, they dealt only with books. The idea was that you don’t study a book to see what its author was trying to say, and then consider whether what s/he was trying to say made any sense; rather, what the author once wrote is now a ‘text’ that has a life of its own, and that it really doesn’t matter a hoot what the ‘author’ wanted to say; it’s all a matter of you-and-the-text: what do YOU think (or feel) the text is saying? And, of course, what you think (or feel) is all that matters – it’s what makes the text ‘real’ and ‘true’. Nothing else can serve as a basis for making you call the ‘text’ real or true.

(Of course, then, if the five students around you each have different thoughts (or feelings) about the text, then you can’t be going and telling them they’re ‘wrong’ – and this is a huge problem if, say, you are trying to whip up political support for what YOU think (or feel) is right and what policy agenda should follow from your thoughts (or feelings)).

So Narrative not only claims to be dealing with the fundamental realities of human existence and human being and human life and history, but Narrative also presumes that there are no ‘realities’, that it’s all clay – and all this-worldly clay, too. This turns out to be pretty much what the adolescent Hippies sort of were getting at, though they would never take time out from pot and sex to actually think the whole thing through.

But other elements did, back there in the American Sixties. And all that French stuff, which didn’t get very far in France, where wayyy too many knowledgeable folks realized it was itself a mushy pot of plop, and even the government realized that if you totally undermine peoples’ sense of an anchoring belief, you are asking for societal and cultural dissolution, and eventually for anarchy.

But the whole thing would work beautifully in a society where a bunch of different groups were trying to make a grab for political influence and power. And to do so, since what they wanted was so different from what most folks took to be ‘reality’, they therefore needed to get rid of ‘reality’ so as to make some room for themselves and what they wanted.

Oh well, democracies and democratic politics can handle this sort of thing.

Ah well but No, the groups here figured. See, if folks (all those citizens) are deeply mis-programmed to begin with, then they can’t really be expected to ‘get it’, to agree with any ‘reality’ but the one they’ve been programmed into from birth. So you can’t really expect to have much of a discussion; they will call all the ‘new’ ideas crazy and that will be the end of the revolution.

But of course, there was that whole ‘revolutionary’ approach: that things are wrong around here, that folks can’t be counted upon to realize it or do anything useful about it, so it’s up to those few who really ‘get it’ to simply take over and – eventually – reprogram folks into the ‘truth’ and the ‘reality’ that the revolutionaries, those enlightened and selfless geniuses, can see even though nobody else can.

Well, as I said, none of this would probably get very far if folks had a chance to talk about it democratically.

But America in the later Sixties had a government pretty much ruled by one Party, the Democratic Party, and that Party was desperate to make as many folks as possible happy, or at least to get them ‘feeling good’ about the Democrats. So the Democrats now put the power of the government in the service of the several ‘revolutions’, all of which somehow didn’t have a very great respect for either ‘reality’ or democratic politics.

Later, the Republicans would start their huge growth to national stature by starting to appeal to the citizens who didn’t quite think or feel that the Democrats’ plan was an altogether wise one. But the Republicans, eager to get their Party set up as a major player as quickly as possible, also adopted the revolutionary idea that those who ‘get it’ should manipulate the minds and feelings of those who ‘just don’t get it’.

And so, before too long into the Seventies, the country’s Citizens were faced with both Parties being committed to manipulation of public opinion, based in fuzzy but strong ways on the assumptions that most of the people don’t get it and probably never will, and that ‘nothing is real anyway’ and that if you just ‘agree’, and if enough of you just ‘agree to agree’, then the new agenda will be ‘accepted’ and then it will ‘work’ and the whole country will be happy and the better for it.

Oy. Oy gevalt. Oy and frak.

Did the new ideas and agendas actually ‘work’? Well, that’s a matter of opinion, so long as the facts were made to fit the agenda. I recall, for example, that the US Naval Academy suddenly decided that it was no longer in the business of creating ‘combat leaders’, but simply preparing its cadets for ‘a career in the Navy’ – as if the Academy were simply Harvard Business School with uniforms. I recall the Coast Guard Academy ruling that if its cadets didn’t want to master wrestling or the various disciplines of karate or other forms of the art, they could simply substitute their own composition of “interpretive dance”.

Of course, this was the 1990s, and it was assumed that none of the cadets would ever have to conduct themselves according to the dark and awefull rules of armed combat again – because America was the world-hegemon and the Soviet Union was gone, and computers would make ‘warriors’ extinct, which was good because being a ‘warrior’ was such a male thing anyway. (It gets you wondering if part of the reason for the NVOs* in Iraq and elsewhere were because the ‘dance’ stuff wasn’t enough of a professional education to handle the combat stuff.

No matter. The ‘Narrative’ had been set up, and the government supported it, and no other ‘narrative’ or ‘Narrative’ was going to get any airtime. Game, set, and match – as they say on the tennis courts, dahling.

Except – not. Not only is History not dead. Reality is apparently still alive too. And perhaps now We are going to be facing it, like the Japanese had to face at Midway an American carrier force that was not supposed to be there, and – in one case – was supposed to be already sunk. The day did not well for the Imperial Japanese. Or for their Narrative (unending victory for our empire and our emperor). That day was the beginning of the end for them and their Narrative.

So these are just a couple-three thoughts. Keep them somewhere handy in your mind, for the next episode of Reality Exists Independently of Narrative and Spin. Don’t bother trying to change the channel. It’s on all stations and all media – whether they want to admit it or not.

NOTE

*Non-victorious Outcomes

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