A comment on my blog post of last week, “Gridlock Stalls Recovery,” referred to my propensity to use metaphor to build a narrative. “Maybe it is time to speak in plain English rather than in metaphors,” wrote commenter and fellow Open Salon writer Alan Milner. He advocated the use of cold, hard, statistics to confront the lunacy of the hard right-Libertarian view of the economy and of the role of government in stimulating economic growth.
As a one-time English major, my attitude is it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Novelists know that nothing is less important than a fact in constructing a compelling narrative. What matters more is how elements of character, plot, style, metaphor and voice combine to reinforce and play off of each other to create a compelling world for the reader.
While it would be cynical to argue that facts are irrelevant in the construction of one’s own social, economic, or political narrative, it is self-evident that they rarely win political arguments. What wins is story.
Story usually incorporates a few facts, and then twists them. “Factoids” Vonnegut called these; things that might be true, could be true, but just aren’t. These, it would seem, are the raw materials with which we often create our political narratives.
The conservative Republican and Libertarian narrative about our economic meltdown is that an irresponsible government took all our money and spent it. Therefore, to get right again, we have to take away all the money from the government.
Michele Bachmann’s narrative is that God says Christians must occupy positions of social authority in trust for Him until He returns, and that government is the Evil One and must be vanquished.
Mine is that capitalism is the best system we have come up with to run our economy so far and so long as government regulation keeps it in check. So while a conservative Republican wants his money back from the government, I think that irresponsible, underregulated capitalists squandered "our" money. Their actions killed the gigantic hog that produced the wealth and now we just have this scrawny little piglet we call our present economy and…. Oh. A metaphor.
Story informs who we are beyond the facts. Our story often says more about us than it does about external reality. I wish, despite my training in the solipsistic arts, that facts could win arguments. But beyond the Academy it just isn't so and even within the Academy, where we would hope facts might reign supreme…just ask any tenured professor or fledgling administrator if facts win arguments in the ivory tower.
On the cold, hard pavement of retail politics, facts are irrelevant. Why is it that every politician must start their introductory narrative with homespun personal origins and end with God? I guess it is that we want them to conform—or they think we want them to conform—to a shared narrative that makes us, in the words of President Obama, “a Triple-A nation.” Homespun. God-fearing. Bootstraps. Beats a fact any day.
People who live and die by facts usually lose. I think I lost, and my compadres lost, in our fervent support for health care reform because no facts were consulted in the making of that sausage. Not a single politician that I can think of cited baseline data from other countries that actually ran sensible systems.
Instead we got two stories. One narrative conjured government control of your body. The other, corporate control of your body. Those fearing the government trumped those who feared corporations. Why? Probably because fear of government is a super-popular story just now. The government took your cheese. That’s why you’re broke. Your schools are tanking, roads buckling, job gone, savings, well, what savings…the government did it all. Big. Bad. Government.
I have a lot of facts at my disposal and I use them when I can. I admire thinkers like Robert Reich and Frank Rich who use facts judiciously to build a compelling narrative, also relying upon the strength of character, plot, metaphor, voice, and, most of all, logic, to create their stories about our economic and political situation.
When President Obama was sworn into office there was a run on bullets. Gun enthusiasts across the nation believed and repeated a story that the government was going to stop gun dealers from selling ammo. There would be serial numbers on each bullet. No facts were employed in the transmission of that story, but it stuck.
Obama’s a Muslim. Death panels. Nine eleven was an inside job. Howling gaspers like these have legs. What seems to be the better strategy is not just to state the facts, but to devise better a better story, a more complete narrative that smacks of reality. President Obama is a centrist president, at minimum nominally Christian, partially of African descent, who benefited from Affirmative Action programs sponsored by the government, but due to his own hard work rose to the position of the most powerful person in the world, where he (may or) may not prove to be an effective leader when all is said and done. That beats the whole Muslim thing.
My commenter, Alan Milner, offered a compelling array of facts to support his case. I’m going to keep some in my quiver. He wrote:
I just completed a study that documents a plain fact: tax cuts have only resulted in job growth in seven out of the past 88 years. That's seven out of 16 occasions when the maximum nominal tax rate was cut. On the other hand, over the same 88 year period, tax HIKES resulted in eight occasions of job growth. That's eight out of 12 occasions.
That’s great. We need studies like this; we need facts like this. Some say a statistic is the lowest form of a fact, but that’s not entirely fair. Statistics are merely refined data, and at the best convey more concentrated factual content, the way refined sugar, for example, conveys more sweetness to the unit than, say, a raw sugar beet.
Nonetheless, our personal stories stay rooted in the fertile ground of what seems apparent. Story-centricity, it seems, is on the rise. In this Sunday’s New York Times Sunday Review section Frank Bruni writes in “True Believers, All of Us”:
…don’t we all also have to admit that to varying degrees and with varying degrees of stakes, there’s magical thinking in secular life, and that it springs from a similar yearning for easy, all-encompassing answers?
Easy stories; that is. Here’s the tweet-sized takeaway from an English major: in the marketplace of stories simple stories always win. In the rot of Weimar Germany a simple story took off: the Jews have all the money, proving, for the previous century at least, that simple stories can be dangerous.
In the same New York Times section, Emory University professor of psychology Drew Westin wrote, “Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or battle to be fought.” Whether it is Jews or Big Gummint who are the enemy at any given moment, I would argue against expectations of monolithic villainism.
For my story, I am astonished at the amount of wealth that vanished since 2007. Job loss only tells part of the story. Systemic changes in the economy explain more. The cumulative effects, however, of shrinking demand throughout the system does explain why so many people, even those who kept their jobs, feel such a pinch. But that’s not a simple story. If you run a hair salon and everybody extends their haircut cycle from three to five weeks; and two former mortgage brokers open a new salon, Shear Madness, across the street; and Supercuts is expanding in your area, you are going to feel the pinch. Can we wrap our heads around the fact that we are all that salon owner and this whole enchilada is going to stay shrunken for a long, long, time? Can we then stop blaming the Evil Government for it all and acknowledge instead that our capitalists have been very, very, bad, and we ourselves engaged in some intensely magical thinking about the depth of our pockets and, well, the whole real estate thing was maybe a mistake? If the government is evil—in my story at least—it is because government didn’t save us from ourselves by erecting a few sensible boundaries on our casino economy. But of course my story is not for everyone. Live by greed, die by greed. That’s how I see it. But certainly, don’t blame the government for all that mess. The mess, it would seem, is yours, Mr. Tax Cutter, Git the Government Out of My Way Magical Thinker. The horses are gone. The barn is burned. Humpty lies in pieces. Milk all over the floor. Just get over the government. The government was on spring break when this little Wonderland crashed and burned.