Brother, can you spare a narrative?Let me tell you what is wrong with the country today — you know, what’s wrong besides the soaring deficits, the spluttering economy, the bought and sold Congress and the unending foreign wars.
By: Reg Henry, The Dickinson Press
Let me tell you what is wrong with the country today — you know, what’s wrong besides the soaring deficits, the spluttering economy, the bought and sold Congress and the unending foreign wars.
What’s wrong is that politicians and their supporters have lost their narratives. In consequence, many impressionable Americans have no narrative either. Many wander the streets pathetically asking: “Have you seen my narrative? I had one just recently.” In short, nothing in politics makes sense anymore.
At this point, curious readers will ask: What is a narrative? It is an explanation, a story to explain how things work. The narrative takes events and puts them all together to form a unified theory that can be successfully marketed to the chronically gullible. And it’s not just in politics.
Every salesman must have a narrative. For example, you are an educated person yet you do not have any widgets. Widgets are environmentally friendly. They will cut your bills and make you attractive. Your children will feel the shame of coming to school widget-less when their little friends have them. Buy a widget today! Prosecutors depend on narratives. The evidence shows that the accused was motivated by widget-envy. He noticed some widgets in his neighbor’s yard and he snuck over at night and stole them. The defendant says he just cut through the yard on a dog walk. A likely story! Convict this man of grand theft widget.
In the same way, politicians must have narratives to explain why their reality is the one you need to buy. But that is where the problem arises. Everywhere you look you hear the sound of shredding narratives.
Take, for example, this week’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. In the narrative of conservative Republicans, one of their fondest talking points is the threat posed by activist liberal judges.
But this time liberal committee members justly complained about the activism of the conservative Roberts court. In their folksy way, the conservative majority on the court more often than not plays the Will Rogers of the well-heeled — most of them never met a corporation they didn’t like.
It’s funny how the Constitution, the great charter of the people, seems in the conservative judicial reading only to favor more prosperous people. An unintended consequence is that the conservative narrative has become spoiled. There’s no plausibly blaming judicial activism on liberals when conservative justices plainly do it too.
Faced with this uncomfortable truth, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee, did well to restrain himself and not shout at his liberal colleagues: “Hey, you can’t complain about activist judges. That’s our narrative. You get your own narrative.”
The oil spill in the Gulf has spoiled the conservative narrative too. It is part of the right-wing dogma that if only the government gets out of the way with its pesky regulations, private companies will do a better job. Unfortunately, as we have learned from the Gulf, a hands-off policy will not work unless human nature is repealed. If managers are allowed to do anything they want to cut costs and enhance profits, they oftentimes will.
The narrative destruction is not limited to conservatives. President Barack Obama promised change we can believe in and then proceeded to cull the believers by behaving much like his predecessor in a number of areas. What is his narrative now: Yes, we can’t?
This all came home to me recently at the Moosehead Tavern, where I saw Hopey Changey sitting at the bar looking depressed. (Surely you remember Hopey Changey, the president’s pal? He was the guy that Sarah Palin asked about earlier this year: “How’s that Hopey Changey thing working out for ya?”) Hopey Changey was considering whether he should go home and listen to NPR or order another chardonnay when who should walk in but Sarah’s old pal, Drill Baby Drill.
“Hey, Drill Baby, what’s up?” Hopey asked. “Haven’t seen you around too much lately. Are you as depressed as I am in these troubled times?”
“Haven’t got a realistic narrative to call my own now,” Drill Baby said sadly.
“Me neither,” said Hopey. “Maybe the two of us could go out in the street like a pair of old bums and say to passersby, ‘Brother, can you spare a narrative?’ It’s better than trying to sell widgets in this economy.”
— Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail him at email@example.com.