The battle to dominate the narrative

We can call this battle to frame the story the war for history, it is also the war for the present and future.   Those victors who get to frame the story win the most important battle in human affairs — the battle for hearts and minds — legitimacy and power.   These storytellers win the most coveted political and personal prize: convincing people to go along with what they say so that their story prevails.   The correct astutely told narrative will either completely justify or absolutely condemn a course of action.   Masses of people are whipped into action or lulled to sleep by a compelling story told just right.  

There is the undeniable reality that we are all soaking in, the facts on the ground, the war is for which story will be accepted as the credible explanation for what we can all see looking around, reading, watching, discussing.    This was driven home to me yesterday during a talk with a friend.

He has largely tuned out the political news these days.   He doesn’t follow developing stories as they are happening.   It is too aggravating, too harrowing, too depressing, too consistently unfair, too troubling.   I understand all that and I share all those feelings.   It is a reasonable response, to not focus on the predictable parade of horrors that are constantly being thrust into our faces under the seal of the President of the United States.  

I’ve taken a different approach recently, having the time and inclination, I watch certain events closely as they unfold.   The drama is endlessly gripping, if also often horrifying.

In the end, watching or not, my friend and I arrive, along with hundreds of millions of our countrymen, billions more worldwide, at the same seemingly inevitable bad place (or glorious place, if you think catastrophic climate change is fake, poor people and immigrants are criminal parasites, pre-existing medical conditions should condemn a middle class person to death, and so forth).   My friend at least spares himself the agony of constantly thwarted hope while watching the driverless car careen towards its inevitable destination.

I understood again,  watching recent events unfold in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, how history can sometimes turn on a single unexpected moment, a small detail can change an outcome — things that the best strategists seize on to turn into political narratives that change outcomes.   Here is where storytelling comes in, who is the hero, who is the victim, who is the vicious participant in a vast, well-funded conspiracy?  

The funny thing is that in each opposing story the victim is actually the persecutor and vice versa — since the only information we really have is her claim and his strenuous denial. Anybody else who was there has no memory of that inconsequential summer hang out at somebody’d house, it apparently only meant something to the younger girl who was traumatized there, if you believe her.   The truth is often not zero-sum, one side is 100% right the other side 100% wrong, but a good partisan story makes it seem so. 

If she’s lying, he’s the victim.  If he’s lying, she’s the victim.  Oh, dear, who do you believe?   Who gets the presumption of innocence?   Several others who knew the nominee well in high school and college stepped forward to give further detail about the nominee during the time he was accused by two different women of drunken sexual assault, seeming to corroborate— but, wait, corroboration is bad…. oh, dear!  A secret, limited investigation should put everything to rest.  

In our current tribal cannibal culture only one of the two gets the presumption of innocence, the other one has to disprove a presumption of guilt.  Depending on which zero-sum story you embrace, your view of the facts will be completely different.    Which story makes more sense to you?   Use Judge Martha Kavanaugh’s famous test:  use your common sense, what rings true, what rings false?

There are facts, things that actually happened.  Without witnesses, of course, it’s a matter of faith that people who vow to tell the truth under the penalties of perjury are in fact telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.   A liar will always try to take advantage of this presumption that people do not lie under oath.   They always do if they know there is no definitive proof that they are lying.

Our current president galvanized a lot of rage and discontent during a carnival-like campaign, spinning a shifting narrative that was dismissed by his many detractors as the inane blathering of an idiot con-man.  His crowds, fond of raising their arms in unison and lustily chanting things like “Lock Her Up! Lock her Up!” are easy to make fun of (from afar, anyway).    In the end this shameless huckster became president by less than 100,000 votes nationwide.  Broken into the individual precincts necessary for his Electoral College margin, his national victory came down to deciding handfuls of votes in a few hundred, or maybe even only a few dozen, shrewdly targeted polling places.  

That fact, that his victory depended on genius analytics, skillful marketing and aggressive voter mobilization in selected counties of selected ‘battleground’ states, contrasts with the wider narrative that he was swept into power by a populist movement, millions and millions of average Americans sick of corrupt American politics, tired of America no longer being great.  The candidate himself frankly described how at first he had dismissed “Drain the Swamp,” considering it a fairly lackluster slogan.   He only changed his mind when he saw how quickly crowds seemed to take to it, how they loved chanting it.   He made it a central part of every rally after that.  What good showman refuses to play one of his greatest hits when the crowd screams for an encore?   

It is sickening to repeat, particularly in a political environment that makes an excellent case against the proposition (and repeatedly, about the existence of truth itself), but facts really do matter.  The largest lesson of his victory in 2016 is not that a plain-spoken outsider with a long history of using the media to promote himself and get massive amounts of free publicity can reach millions of disaffected people, with the help of a few supportive billionaires, and get enough votes to win.  

The more important story is how the powerful people who wanted to consolidate their power in perpetuity, willing to ride even this particular crude, cruel, unsportsmanlike donkey to their larger, long-term goals, got that crucial margin of a few thousand votes exactly where they needed them to put an unqualified fake into the White House and a long-term majority of justices they trained and selected on to the Supreme Court.

Whether Russian hackers hired by Vladimir Putin helped the effort or it was a 100% American initiative, or some combination of both, the outcome is not in question: Mr. Trump got the tiny slice of votes required, exactly where he needed them, for a majority in the Electoral College.  He is legally the president, end of story.

I was thinking of this to watch/not to watch decision in the context of the recent Kavanaugh nomination hearings.   The conclusion was foregone, as my friend wearily pointed out, as we all knew going in.   A partisan Senate with a 51-49 majority, there was no way the majority party’s partisan nominee was not getting confirmed.   Which, of course, is exactly what happened, so all that anxiety about the outcome while the depressing circus ground on was a waste of energy.   But as always, the real drama, and any possible lessons, of the story live in the devilish details that can only be seen by watching closely.

Everyone who saw Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony found it to some degree credible.   She came forward reluctantly, with nothing to gain, in well-founded fear, facing death threats.   She spoke meekly but also with certainty about the details she remembered, including the identity of the drunk teenager who for a few unforgettably scarring moments (for her) made an involuntary sex toy of her.   She even explained how trauma is indelibly stamped on the hippocampus, making a victim’s visual recall of certain specific details highly accurate.   She did not make an irrefutable criminal case against the man who had sexually assaulted her decades earlier, nor was she required to, but she made a very credible case about the events of that day and the identity of the boy who held his hand over her mouth after locking her in a bedroom.  Another woman came forward seeking to testify about another drunken assault at Yale.   A third woman came forward.   The desperate liberal conspiracy in full bloom!

In light of the nominee’s confirmation a few days later, my friend considered Blasey Ford and her compelling testimony ‘collateral damage’, the whole kangaroo hearing so much dirty water down the drain.   Accurate description, of course, in terms of how little effect her testimony wound up having, how her life was destroyed in passing by forces who 100% didn’t give a rat’s cuisse about the truth or falseness of what she said.  

The issue had been reframed: she had not made a credible criminal case that would have stood up to get a conviction in court– plus he denied it 100%, the exact degree of certainty she had about him being the attacker.  A nothingburger!   No need to even look for corroboration, let’s vote!

The issue as she testified was not about making a criminal case, of course, but about shining a light on the nominee’s character, including his willingness to make many misleading and untruthful statements, and the long-time Republican operative’s possibly unjudicial temperament.   Once the nominee denied it all, and the issue was reframed that her testimony didn’t rise to the level needed for a criminal conviction, all that was left to the nominee was to demonstrate his innocence and his judicial temperament.   That he did neither, outside of indignant conspiracy-bashing 100% denials, did nothing to contradict even the reframed story. And, of course, because it was 51-49, no story was actually even required.   Yet we are left with a potent right wing talking point now, good enough for their base, about the Democrats’ self-serving “abandonment of the presumption of innocence.” Their guy was, as always, the only victim here.

Christine Blasey Ford is, absolutely, in the minds of millions, ‘collateral damage’.   You can see right wing women on youTube picking apart her facial expressions as she awaited her public ordeal, about to relive the trauma on live TV– “she involuntarily opened and shut her mouth twice, clear indication that she’s preparing to lie”.   Right wing women jumped on this with both feet, apparently.

My thought was that we should make her name part of a rallying cry to mobilize voters in the upcoming elections.   Make her sacrifice mean something politically, was my thought.   It was this absurd idea I was toying with, in trying to think up ways to support the opposition in the crucial upcoming elections, that caused my friend to try to straighten me out.

I’d described to him how, immediately after she testified, Republicans, including the crew at Fox, were worriedly questioning whether Kavanaugh could survive this totally believable and very damaging testimony.   There was a short period when it appeared that a brave citizen might have been able to stop a political gang bang in progress.  In spite of everything, in spite of 51-49, when they broke for lunch, it appeared the nominee was in big trouble.   Fox was worried and so, reportedly, was the president.

After a long lunch break and presumably a hurried war council, the nomination was saved by angry counter-accusations during which Blasey Ford’s credible allegations, although barely even referred to, were strongly shouted down by one Republican man after another, denounced as part of an orchestrated political hit funded, according to these angry partisans, by millions of dollars from rich liberals. A series of loudly sounding charred pots and kettles, talking about how black the motives of their unprincipled opponents were.  A draw, decided 51-49 (50-48 in the end).

My friend, by not watching the drama as it unfolded and before it came to its preordained conclusion, had no trouble dismissing Blasey Ford as anything but the latest example of another innocent, decent person burned up by the ruthless application of opportunistic partisan politics.    Having seen the proceedings, I believe her name, properly invoked, could be a powerful political rallying cry, get many otherwise apathetic, resigned people to the polls for midterm elections that are typically voted in by only the tiniest slice of our electorate, decided by handfuls of votes. 

I don’t have the phrase yet, and even if I did, I have no way to reach anyone with my ideas.  A few friends might think it a good phrase, if could I coin it pithily, present it winningly, and that would be that. On the other hand, we need to use every persuasive technique at our disposal to change the outcome of enough state elections to return subpoena power to the opposition party.   A 51-49 Senate majority is hardly the expression of democracy that full investigations into widespread government wrong-doing is.   

How is it that a woman can face death threats (ongoing we hear) to testify credibly about a traumatic attack that has tortured her anew since her long ago prep school sexual assaulter was put on the short list to be one of the nine most powerful people in the country, and be effectively shouted down by enraged partisan men ignoring the allegations entirely, and that is the end of it?   I know, I know, 51-49.

But does that inevitable ‘collateral damage’ apply to any woman who comes forward and testifies against a powerful man as credibly as Blasey Ford did?   Collateral damage, sister, if the guy is as connected and powerful as this good, God-fearing Jesuit prep school graduate.    The Jesuits disowned him in their national weekly, but who the hell are they, anyway?  A bunch of self-righteous partisan traitors, if the prevailing story, in all of its many contradictory wrinkles, is to be believed.

We tell the stories we need to tell, privately and publicly.  It is up to fair-minded people of good will to decide which stories are more believable than others.  My own story, for example, is a long tale of seemingly willful refusal to succeed.   I tell it differently, of course, bringing integrity and other fantastic notions into it, but there is a powerful case to be made that I am a deluded, judgmental, viciously opinionated loser who can’t even write half as well as I believe I can.   Luckily for me, it’s not up to me to convince anyone about anything.  


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