Ob­ses­sion with ‘shap­ing the nar­ra­tive’

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION -

The most ex­haust­ing thing about our pol­i­tics th­ese days — other than the never-end­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion it­self — is the ob­ses­sion with “shap­ing the nar­ra­tive.” By that I mean the effort to con­nect the dots be­tween a se­lec­tive num­ber of facts and sta­tis­tics to sup­port one sto­ry­line about the state of the union.

Nar­ra­tive-build­ing is essen­tial for al­most ev­ery com­pli­cated ar­gu­ment be­cause it’s the only way to get our pat­tern-seek­ing brains to dis­count con­tra­dic­tory facts and data. Trial lawyers un­der­stand this im­plic­itly. Get the jury to buy the story, and they’ll do the heavy lift­ing of ar­rang­ing the facts in just the right way.

Pres­i­dent Obama un­der­stands this too. Just con­sider the way he talks about ter­ror­ism — of­ten re­as­sur­ing Amer­i­cans that they’re more likely to die in a bath­tub accident than in a ter­ror at­tack. And he’s right. On the other hand, bath­tubs aren’t try­ing to get nuclear weapons. Nor are bath­tubs desta­bi­liz­ing the Mid­dle East (of­ten killing mas­sive num­bers of non-Amer­i­cans) or oth­er­wise plot­ting to con­quer the world.

Obama’s goal is ob­vi­ous. He wants the story of ter­ror­ism to lose its po­tency and re­cede from our pol­i­tics. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry re­cently sug­gested as much when he said, “Per­haps the me­dia would do us all a service if they didn’t cover [ter­ror­ism] quite as much. Peo­ple wouldn’t know what’s go­ing on.”

This mind­set helps ex­plain the now-fa­mil­iar pat­tern whereby the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­sponds to a ter­ror at­tack by slow-walk­ing an ac­knowl­edge­ment of re­al­ity. First there is the re­luc­tance to call it ter­ror­ism, then the re­luc­tance to call it Is­lamic ter­ror­ism, and fi­nally the re­luc­tance to ad­mit that it was plot­ted or in­spired in any way by the Is­lamic State or al-Qaida. Lone wolves are the new fall­back, be­cause they are self-rad­i­cal­ized and hence not part of some larger chal­lenge — or story.

One prob­lem with this effort to so ag­gres­sively edit the ter­ror­ism nar­ra­tive in real time is that it sows skep­ti­cism about the truth­ful­ness of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

An­other is that it in­ad­ver­tently fu­els a story that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, like the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion be­fore it, rightly wants to down­play: that Is­lam it­self is the prob­lem. If all of th­ese “home­grown” “lone wolves” are “self-rad­i­cal­iz­ing” — with­out aid or as­sis­tance from for­eign pow­ers — you can see why some peo­ple might con­clude that Is­lam it­self is the source of ex­trem­ism.

Repub­li­cans are hardly im­mune to the temp­ta­tion to drive a sto­ry­line ahead of the facts. Don­ald Trump says our coun­try is a “di­vided crime scene” and that African-Amer­i­can “com­mu­ni­ties are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in be­fore. Ever. Ever. Ever.”

This sto­ry­line, never mind this para­graph, des­per­ately needs an ed­i­tor.

But so does the tale of an “epi­demic” of police “hunt­ing” un­armed black men — in the words of some ac­tivists.

There’s no dis­put­ing that the un­war­ranted use of deadly force by police is a le­git­i­mate con­cern. But the nar­ra­tive — in­creas­ingly pushed by Hil­lary Clin­ton in an effort to rev up African-Amer­i­can vot­ers — that it is open sea­son on black men not only does a dis­ser­vice to the police, it also makes it harder to put the prob­lem in per­spec­tive.

What might per­spec­tive en­tail? It hap­pens to be true that young black men are more likely to die in do­mes­tic ac­ci­dents than at the hands of the police. Of course, if a politi­cian said that, lib­er­als would at­tack him or her for min­i­miz­ing the is­sue — just like con­ser­va­tives at­tack Obama for his bath­tub com­ments.

The anger wouldn’t be over the ve­rac­ity of the claim, but the at­tempt to di­lute the nar­ra­tive.

I’m not naive. Craft­ing sto­ries to serve po­lit­i­cal pur­poses is as old as pol­i­tics it­self. But the prob­lem seems to be get­ting worse.

And ev­ery well-crafted nar­ra­tive leaves out im­por­tant facts.

Jonah Gold­berg is syn­di­cated by Tri­bune Me­dia Ser­vices.

Jonah Gold­berg The Na­tional Re­view

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