Thursday, January 7, 2010
Controlling the Narrative, or the Winner Gets to Write the History
Mr. Billy Flynn sings the Press Conference Rag. Notice how his lips never move....almost
One does not have to be a literary deconstructionist to realize that formative sentences can shape people's opinions almost subconsciously. Think of Satan in the garden. What did he do? He seized the narrative from Eve. What do I mean by narrative? Simply our recollection of events, and our interpretation of those things --culture shaping myths, etc.
So Satan says, "Did God really say you may not eat of any of the trees of the garden?" Satan was not stupid. He knew what God said, and he knew that Eve knew. What he was doing was introducing doubt by sneaking past her intellectual defenses, getting her to buy his presupposition.
And Eve buys it, hook, line, and sinker. "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die." God is not really good. Who is God to hold back on me? Who does he think he is, to put a tree there, and tell me not to eat of it. I mean, we can't even touch it. And it is so beautiful, after all. Surely a good God would allow me to have that.
So, she reaches out and grabs it. So she shall be like God --see, he's not much of a God after all, if he puts his godhood on a tree to be grabbed by any passerby. It is so ludicrous when one looks at it now --and yet, this is precisely what happens when someone seizes control of the narrative. Good, sensible people lose all contact with reality.
One can, now, by reading William Shirer, or watching snippets of Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will, see a prime example of this. How could one of the most technologically advanced peoples in the world, the home of the world's greatest universities, its greatest composers, and many of its greatest authors --a culture built upon the good, the true, and the beautiful, believe the fantastical lies of a vagabond Austrian peasant. His very visage was a contradiction of all he endeavored to promote --Hitler didn't look Aryan in the least. By force of his will, he seized control of the narrative. He got people thinking: the cause of the depredation of the German state in the first world war was not a delusional kaiser, but the exploitation of the western powers, in collusion with the Jews who held the economic reins and destroyed the economy. Germany is great, and deserves greatness, but to achieve that, we must execute vengeance on our enemies.
Now, this is pure poppycock. But, it illustrates the point. Good, thoughtful, earnest, and even Christian people (several prominent orthodox Lutheran theologians, and Abraham Kuyper, Jr. among them) bought the narrative, and closed their eyes to the atrocities (one can see this reality powerfully portrayed by Burt Lancaster in Judgment at Nuremberg).
What happens on the world stage happens in every smaller aggregation of humanity, too. It can happen in families --witness Tennessee Williams masterful, haunting, and disturbing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Kazan's On the Waterfront. Lies told so often, or the truth twisted so subtly that everyone buys it without considering for a moment that it all might be a sham.
Satan is the master of subtlety --that often seems to be his chief talent. Most can recognize outright lies if they are told boldly. But, Satan lays careful groundwork for his big lie --he is the father of lies, indeed. He does not tell Eve the big lie --"you surely shall not die, but you shall be like God" --until he has hooked her unawares.
Cultures that prize honor often rest on a bed of lies --both Williams and William Faulkner made their living off their firsthand experiences with a tragic Mississippi upbringing. I can know something bad about you, and you can even know that I know it, and as long as neither of us speak of it, then all will be well. But, if one of us does, then we must duel....which explains everything from the Klan to the murder of Emmett Till, and why the outside world acted with such incomprehension that these things could happen in this country in the modern era, and justice be delayed till decades later.
At the same time, it explains the untold heroism of many in the South, and their ability to use status and position to counter in part the baleful effects of the honor system upon an oppressed race. LeRoy Percy, uncle of Walker, and Southern statesmen, used his patrician clout to turn back the Klan from the most Southern of Southern places. The courageous press of several Delta towns did, as well. Good men can triumph over bad narrative.
The current health care debacle is a similar effort by its partisans to control the narrative. They have made a wager --as much bad press they will receive (they reckon), it is far less than they would receive if such deliberations were made bi-partisan, or opened to public scrutiny. This is always a gamble, but history proves that broken political promises and the gory details of the sausage-making process are quick to dissipate simply because of our short cultural attention span. All massive social change eventually becomes status quo --who in the public sphere today questions the existence of social security, Medicaid / Medicare, or the existence of the welfare state. Some quibble, some want reform, some want to cut back, but no politician who wants to win would ever argue for their dismantling --liberal or conservative.
And, sad to say, this phenomenon happens in churches. Historians have long puzzled how Jonathan Edwards, the leading light of his or any subsequent theological era, a famous pastor, and one of the three most notable preachers of his day, was summarily dismissed from his pulpit. No historian has adequately explained why. It could just be that a narrative started in the church against him.
Paul himself was the victim of this narrative robbery in Corinth. He was accused of profiting from the gospel, called a coward, and a man with no pulpit talent. The narrative was seized by his enemies.
And, I have seen this happen to at least one very good man, and I am sure that it happens again and again. Just like old Horton the elephant, the whispering campaigns of the one Jane Kangaroo can end with the extermination of an entire species.
Why talk about this? So we can try to be objective when it begins to happen. How can it be stopped? First, it is stopped by treating gossip as serious sin. Gossip is not just slander, but the passing of information with implied judgment (wink and nudge), the subtle introduction of a person's inadequacies, the magnification of their faults (and everyone is open to this, because, alas, there are no super-human church leaders), and an interpretation of events that lends support to ones cause until it all ends up in one toxic mess.
And the worst result is not the dismissing of a pastor, but the downfall of a church. And, I have heard of churches very sorry for what they had done when they woke up and realized it. But, alas, there is no turning back.
Satan is subtle, and we must never give him a foothold to shift our thinking. We must control the narrative --or, even better, listen ardently to the Spirit of Truth.