Don’t Print the Narrative


Here’s my story: I’m sick of narratives. My story, vision, dream—whatever—speaks against the so-called “grand narratives” that populate our rhetorical landscape like so many garden gnomes or pink flamingos. It’s not just that they’re awkward and unpleasant. They distract us from what should be the focus of our attention: the facts. Appealing to a narrative makes the speaker sound lofty in his ideals; it makes a politician’s policy decisions seem inevitable—but that’s just not the case. Call me a narrative skeptic.

At the same time, we can’t ditch all narratives. Some stories are genuinely profound and appropriately shape the national character. So I’m not saying that there’s ever been a political golden age without narrative, and I’m not saying that there aren’t times when a story is just the right thing to offer. But if we want to achieve any kind of golden mean in our communication, we ought lean harder on principles, and less on stories, given the zeitgeist.

Well, then, what’s the difference between genuine narratives and fake ones? I’m glad you asked. Here’s the answer: we should ask ourselves whether or not the narratives we use have implicit propositions that are at least plausible. All narratives offer a story, but they also have a framework behind the story that makes claims about how things are, how things ought to be, or both. If they lack a framework, then the story offers no real insight into political life; it’s just empty rhetoric.

Let’s consider a few concrete examples. In 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and told a story about life on both sides of the Berlin Wall:

In the 1950s, Khrushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself.

But Reagan didn’t stop with the narrative. He immediately offered an interpretation of the historical events:

After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

Reagan’s most famous exclamation from the speech—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”—came within the context of two Berlins, one flourishing and the other decrepit, and Reagan’s clearly articulated belief that freedom leads to prosperity. Reagan moves up the ladder of abstraction, from the two Berlins to a single economic and political principle: freedom leads to prosperity. And he does more than that. Freedom, Reagan says, can lessen the animosity between rival nations, and rival peoples.

In his last address as president, Reagan made the distinction we’re trying to make here, between the stories and the substance of political speech:

And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.

Consider an alternative Republican speech: Richard Nixon’s so-called “Checker’s speech.” When confronted with allegations surrounding his reimbursement from a fund established by his political backers, Nixon flatly denies any wrongdoing at all, arguing that the fund, far from being a threat to integrity, preserved it. He didn’t think it appropriate for the taxpayers to pay for his political expenses, and he thought that practicing law was both impracticable (given that he would have to do so long distance, California) and unwise (given that it could entangle him in the affairs of others, making him susceptible to corruption).

But that’s not what’s remembered in the speech at all. The speech isn’t called Checkers for no reason. In the speech, Nixon offered his recollections of work in the family grocery store; his current automobile (a 1950 Oldsmobile), and—of course—“a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate” sent to “the two youngsters” from “a man down in Texas.” Because the dog was black and white, one of Nixon’s children named him “Checkers,” and, Nixon said, “I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

“Too much attention can be paid,” Hal Bochin writes in Richard Nixon: Rhetorical Strategist, “to whether Nixon’s argument stands up to logical tests or not.” That’s comparatively inconsequential, because something else did the work: “In large part Nixon succeeded because of his successful use of narrative.” Exactly.

Regardless, Nixon thought the speech a success: he celebrated its anniversary yearly, even after Watergate. And, to be fair to Nixon, he did address the political charge of wrongdoing directly. What won the day, though, was the dog.

So why do we turn to grand narratives instead of ideas? First, stories are compelling; they sweep us off our feet. We may forget the principles, but we won’t forget the principals—that is, the protagonists in the political narratives. If we vote with our hearts, then stories about a politician’s upbringing or his candid remarks about his family—and, yes, even thoughts about his dog—make us more amendable to pulling the lever (or punching the chad, touching the screen, etc.) for that candidate. This political challenge is not new, but narratives in a television age allow rhetoric to obscure the facts. (After all, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death made its appearance in 1985, not 1885.)

Narratives have another appeal from a politician’s perspective: they are politically untouchable and help a politician avoid accountability. Neville Chamberlain, to his credit, didn’t warble on about his school days at Rugby, or about the German food he had while abroad. Instead, he read a short statement and said the following, on September 30, 1938:

My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is “peace for our time.” Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.

And, presumably, the people did—but not for long. “Peace for our time”—Chamberlain’s self-conscious echo of Benjamin Disraeli from the century before—proved to be, regrettably, all too short lived. But that’s not the point: Chamberlain was wrong, but he was clear enough in his statement for us to know that he was just that—wrong. Given that avoiding accountability serves as a professional sport amongst politicians, it’s no wonder that many prefer the stories without principals than the stories with them.

Reader Discussion

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on April 06, 2015 at 17:37:09 pm

“I’m sick of narratives. My story, vision, dream—whatever—speaks against the so-called “grand narratives” that populate our rhetorical landscape like so many garden gnomes or pink flamingos. It’s not just that they’re awkward and unpleasant. They distract us from what should be the focus of our attention: the facts.”

I share the concern that our focus on what is easily ingested and digested distracts us from what is important. That said, Alasdair MacIntyre shared some thoughts on this in his book After Virtue at 93-94 (emphasis added):

[It is error] to suppose that the observer can confront a fact face-to-face without any theoretical interpretation imposing itself.

That this was an error, although a pertinacious and long-lived one, is now largely agreed upon by philosophers of science. The twentieth-century observer looks into the night sky and sees stars and planets; some earlier observes saw instead chinks in a sphere through which the light beyond could be observed. What each observer takes himself or herself to perceive is identified and has to be identified by theory-laden concepts. Perceivers without concepts, as Kant almost said, are blind…. [I]f all of our experience were to be characterized exclusively in terms of this bare sensory type of description – a type of description which is certainly useful for a variety of special purposes to resort to from time to time – we would be confronted with not only an uninterpreted, but an uninterpretable world, with not merely a world not yet comprehended by theory, but with a world that never could be comprehended by theory. A world of textures, shapes, smells, sensations, sounds and nothing more invites no questions and gives no grounds for furnishing any answers.

The empiricist concept of experience was a cultural invention of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries…. [I]t was invented as a panacea for the epistemological crises of the seventeenth century; it was intended as a device to close the gap between seems and is, between appearance and reality.

Rightly or wrongly, we need frameworks within which to evaluate facts, or facts become mere noise. I get frustrated when the public embraces narratives that are appealing, albeit inconsistent with facts. But I suspect we all make the same trade-off between narrative and facts, just at different levels of sophistication. Richard Feynman often remarked that many people seem to find it torture to experience something and then declare "I don't know what that was -- and I'm not even going to develop a working hypothesis (a/k/a story) about it." The need for narrative can scarcely be subdued.

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on April 06, 2015 at 18:29:28 pm

"The need for narrative can scarcely be subdued."

Nor should it!

I'll go you one better. Even sensory perception MUST be structured to conform to the neural processes of the individual brain. Check out an infant at, and shortly after birth - an amorphous mass of sensation, inchoate and *signal-driven* (see Walker Percy's exegesis on signal - symbol); Later, one sees the results of a more developed neural "intelligence" (as it were) and the child is eventually able to deal with symbol (language and concepts). To what extent does this more fundamental "perceptual structuring" of experience influence the structuring of narratives? Good question, eh? Heck, if I know.

Yet, it must also be recognized that reason may allow us to factor in the effects of the structured narrative and overcome it. How else could a Mozart, Shakespeare, Madison, Einstein, etc. go beyond the narrative(s) of the day.

Have more faith, Nobody - in the power and workings of human reason. There may be more to us than we know - or let on.

Of course, you could adopt Aldous Huxley's position that man is the discriminating animal; that to make sense of the world he must necessarily ignore certain sensory data. In a literal albeit perceptual sense, he is correct; employed as a method of reasoning, it does leave one wanting.

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