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Wednesday, 02 August 2006 07:00

Ira Chernus Helps Us Understand the Administration's 'Scheherazade Stories'-- and Create Better Ones for America

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

To some extent they use words like "freedom" and "democracy" as synonyms for civilization. And there's a huge history of the words "civilization" and "civilized" being used to mean kind of good guys, like us. If you're good guys, like us, if you share our values, then you support freedom and democracy by definition. And if you aren't sympathetic to us, if you don't like us, if you're not going to help us and get along with us, then you are an enemy of freedom and democracy by definition. That's the way they use that kind of language, I think. It obviously is not using the word "democracy" in a very literal sense.

-- Ira Chernus

Why does the George W. Bush administration have any support? Why haven't their mistakes and bad policies led to open revolt by the American people? As Ira Chernus sees things, the answers may lie in the way they talk and the image they project, both of which are linked to some very powerful and cherished American beliefs and stories. Never mind that their actions don't fit with what most Americans want. Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, unravels the stories they're telling. Let's hope the pro-democracy forces -- that's us -- have learned to weave a better story that voters can and will embrace.

* * *

BuzzFlash: You wrote a remarkable piece for Tomdispatch.com called "Karl Rove's Scheherazade Strategy." Typically we might view politics in terms of sports analogies, but as you say, at least in terms of this administration, it's really the crafting and telling of a story. Karl Rove is a storyteller.

Ira Chernus: I'm not saying that this administration does more of it than any other. In fact, my next major research project is on Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a masterful storyteller in both the literal sense but also in this larger sense of shaping political discourse into narratives and stories. But I think that's always part of the game or the sport -- the skill of creating effective narratives.

BuzzFlash: You're quite specific in this article that Rove is playing upon a story that's part of an American myth -- the taming of the West, the taming of the savages, the good guys coming in to civilize the barbarians. Is that a fairly accurate summary?

Ira Chernus: Right. I avoid the word "myth," because as a professional in religious studies, I know how loaded and debatable that word is. So I use the word "story."

BuzzFlash: How do we get from the conquest of the West, which certainly involved a lot of bloodshed and killing of Native Americans, to telling adapting the narrative to the war with Iraq?

Ira Chernus: There's not a single, simple frontier myth or story. It's a very complicated network of stories and themes, and symbols and images, and language, like a big reservoir that you can draw on for all sorts of purposes. If you recall, at the end of my article, I was suggesting some of the ways Democrats might be able to draw on other aspects of that same set of stories. It's a complicated web with stories that have been drawn on ever since there were white settlers in North America. Everybody can pick and choose the elements or pieces of it that they want, and put it together in their own particular way.

Certainly, the piece that Rove is urging Republicans to focus on for this election is the aspect of steadfastness, of taking the strong stand -- you draw a line in the sand, as George Bush the elder said back in the first Gulf War, and you don't back down until the enemy is defeated. That's not the entirety of this frontier story, but it's the piece that Rove thinks will be the winning ticket for the Republicans.

Just the other day Cheney was basically saying that they're going to focus on these national security issues because they think that's the winning ticket. It's not a matter of analyzing national security policy in any kind of thoughtful, logical way. It's really more a matter of taking these old-fashioned story themes and plugging them into the current national security issues.

BuzzFlash: Rove is a storyteller, and, as in the tale of Scheherazade, there's a new story offered up every night. For example, when the Democrats finally decided to test their mettle and propose that at some point we withdraw from Iraq, suddenly there was an arrest in Liberty City of what turned out to be "aspirational" terrorists. This fits right into the story of good versus evil, of the good guys somehow taming the evil. You talk about how this plays on our insecurities. The more evil there is out there, the more insecure the public becomes, and the more they look for the determined type of leadership that Rove has Bush project. It becomes a vicious circle.

Ira Chernus: Right. And I think that this goes back to the very beginnings of white settlement in North America. When I teach this stuff to my students, I always start with the Pequot War in 1636. There are certain motifs and basic structures in the way that white people talk about America that you can trace back to early colonial times. A big chunk of it is the idea that to be a white person in America, to make life meaningful, you need to have a mission. You need a project. You need to be pushing back the frontier. But that always implies that there is opposition, that there is an enemy out there -- and that the enemy has certain traits. It's very striking, by the way, to look at what the mainstream media say about the Iraqi insurgents today, and what the Puritans were saying about the Indians back in the 1630s. Certain typical traits recur over and over again in both narratives.

But the crucial point here is that that way of talking about what it means to be an American, and why it's meaningful to be an American, assumes that there will be a threat, that there will be danger to be faced up to and overcome. That sense of threat and danger, along with the sense of the moral evil of the enemy, is built into the very fundamental plot of the story. You can't tell the story without feeling threatened, without feeling insecure in some way. And yet, at the same time, set in every generation, you have people who are trying to play on that story to create a sense of security. The more you rely on that kind of language and that kind of story to feel secure, the more you reinforce your sense of insecurity.

BuzzFlash: When we have leadership that somehow says we will tame the evil amidst us, that's probably not a realistic approach. Evil and wars have always been with us, and they don't seem to be abating any time soon.

Ira Chernus: I think it's important to stress that none of this is in the realm of what you and I would call realistic, thoughtful analysis. It's in the realm of storytelling and imagination. But within that realm, another element of this traditional set of frontier stories is the idea that, although the frontier is a dangerous and threatening place, it's also a place where a certain kind of perfection is attainable. You go out to the virgin wilderness, and there's a kind of a purity. There's clarity, and the line is drawn between good and evil -- again, in the realm of imaginative storytelling. And if you imagine that the line between good and evil is drawn so clearly, and you imagine, of course, that you're on the good side, then you have to imagine yourself as being completely good, just as the enemy is completely evil. So you're setting up a standard of perfection that nothing less than an absolute conquest of the evil will be acceptable. By that standard, you're pretty well doomed to fail.

BuzzFlash: The Scheherazade tale is about the man whose policy was "wed ‘em, bed ‘em and kill ‘em at dawn." Scheherazade survives by creating a compelling story that keeps her listener wanting to hear more. What Rove is telling follows Scheherazade's rule. When policy dooms you, start telling stories -- stories so fabulous, so gripping, so spell-binding that the American citizen forgets all about a lethal policy. But why doesn't reality derail the story?

Ira Chernus: The story becomes a lens through which the reality is filtered, and the story then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You see what the story predicts you'll see, because you're looking at the world through the lens of the story. But that leaves the question as to whether we could have a political culture and discourse without stories, without shaping our experience into narratives. And when you shape your experience into some kind of narrative, you're bound to oversimplify it, leaving out the elements that don't fit into the story and heightening the elements that do fit into the story.

I suspect that the people who created the American system of government had immensely sophisticated narratives about political life that they were implying and suggesting. But I think they imagined that you could have a politics of purely logical, analytical discourse, which hasn't happened. That doesn't mean it can't happen.

A big dilemma for the Democrats is that the Republicans, certainly since Ronald Reagan, have dominated the storytelling contest. The Republicans have had more powerful stories to tell. As we know, the Democrats always come out ahead in the polls when you ask people about specific policy issues, but Republicans do well electorally because they have a more powerful story

BuzzFlash: I think Reagan was the modern beginning of this -- literally, an actor who became president. And now one of our nation's primary products is entertainment -- telling stories, watching stories, being addicted to television -- we get a lot of our information through storytelling. The news, in part, becomes storytelling.

Ira Chernus: That's what news is -- it's a news story -- that's what journalists do.

BuzzFlash: One could call it sensationalism. We seem to be much more involved with people's personal lives and the drama of the news - not the public policy aspects. It seems to me that Rove is a person whose skills meet the modern age.

Ira Chernus: That may be true. On the other hand, I think some historians will argue that Franklin Roosevelt was the most masterful storyteller of modern American politics, and in terms of stagecraft, too. He was the first president who used electronic media incredibly successfully.

Another masterful storyteller -- maybe the greatest of all -- was Martin Luther King, Jr., who could also analyze policy on a very sophisticated level. If you read most of King's political speeches as well as his sermons, there's a sprinkling of policy analysis in there, but mostly it's just great storytelling. So I don't think that on the liberal or progressive side people have to give up storytelling. There are ways to take more rational and humane and popular policies -- the kinds of policies that people want, like getting out of the war in Iraq, or getting a better health care system, or getting a more equitable tax structure -- and the best political leaders can promote those policies and weave persuasive stories around those progressive policies. I'm just saying it's been done in the past, and we have fine models. We can hold the Democratic Party and leaders on the left to that same high standard.

BuzzFlash: You brought up the issue of how the Native Americans figured in the white settlers' story of conquering frontiers and having a mission, and now we're seeing another story play out in the battle that's immigration, which involves the brown-skinned people from Mexico. You also bring up what is perceived by the right wing as the feminization of America, which relates back to the masculinity that has been a feature of the frontier ethic story. Could you talk a little more about that?

Ira Chernus: It's very important to stress here that I'm talking about stereotypical images of masculine and feminine. I'm certainly not saying that men make more clear moral decisions than women, but there's a long-standing simplistic stereotype that says what it means to be a man is to draw a clear, absolute distinction between good and evil, and fight on behalf of the good and destroy the evil. The old-fashioned, simplistic stereotype of women is that they'll be more accepting or understanding and won't take a strong stand. The reason I raise that is partly to comment on the at least temporary shrinking of the gender gap in American politics. That was part of the reason that George W. Bush was able to get as many votes as he did in both presidential elections -- he got more votes from women than other Republicans have gotten in recent years. One reason may be that he is able to project this view of a man who fights against evil. That illusion of moral clarity is something women as well as men are eagerly seeking in their politics.

BuzzFlash: Particularly so because part of the story telling is stoking the coals of fear.

Ira Chernus: Right.

BuzzFlash: Bush projects the image that he never apologizes or changes his mind.

Ira Chernus: Here again, you could get caught up in a vicious cycle. They make this an absolute -- the opposition between good and evil -- but life itself never fulfills that -- never gives them the clarity they want -- so they tend to seek it out more energetically, more eagerly, and end up being more frustrated.

This is the basic theme of the book I'm publishing later this summer called "Monsters to Destroy." It looks at Bush and the neo-conservative tradition, and the Evangelical Christian tradition, whose frustration about moral ambiguity compounds itself. They think they're trying to escape from moral ambiguity, whether it's through religion or through a cultural war, or through a war on terrorism. But all these different avenues end up sinking them deeper in the very ambiguity they're trying to escape. By the way, I think liberals have their own way of doing that, too. It plays out in different ways in different arenas.

BuzzFlash: I'd be interested in how you analyze the structure of the story that Rove is scripting. You certainly imply that Bush is the primary actor in this script. One of the things, which of course, has been with us since the Revolution, is how much we value democracy. Certainly one of the themes and one of the many reasons we heard for the war in Iraq, is the spread of democracy -- that Bush is committed to spreading democracy. This is a major sub-motif of this story that Rove is scripting and Bush is telling.

Yet Hamas was elected by a democratic process. People haven't claimed that Hamas stole the election to the Palestinian legislative body, which they won. Yet the Bush administration has branded them as a terrorist organization, which they may very well be. Well, how does the story account for democracy when it doesn't go your way? The same thing happened in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez -- democratically elected but the Bush Administration allegedly tried at least one coup against him and has made it quite clear they would like to see him go one way or another. So how do you account for spreading democracy when you can approve of some democracies and not of others? How does that fit in with the story line?

Ira Chernus: I look mostly to the word "freedom," which I think Bush has used more than "democracy." What I conclude in my forthcoming book is that those words are essentially symbolic. You could almost think of them as bottles into which American political speakers pour whatever content they want. Words like freedom and democracy as they're used by the Bush Administration are almost synonyms for the American way of life. They're synonyms for the values that we approve -- whatever they happen to be at the time. So I think certainly it's important to make the point you just made -- to hold them accountable. You say: look, if you really support democracy, you've got to accept whatever the people did. But the fact is, they don't really mean democracy in a literal sense.

BuzzFlash: In electoral processes. They actually mean we want to make the world safe to be just like us.

Ira Chernus: To some extent they use words like "freedom" and "democracy" as synonyms for civilization. And there's a huge history of the words "civilization" and "civilized" being used to mean kind of good guys, like us. If you're good guys, like us, if you share our values, then you support freedom and democracy by definition. And if you aren't sympathetic to us, if you don't like us, if you're not going to help us and get along with us, then you are an enemy of freedom and democracy by definition. That's the way they use that kind of language, I think. It obviously is not using the word democracy in a very literal sense.

BuzzFlash: This is language that's practically exploding with symbolic resonance; it's meant to be taken figuratively as part of the story, and not literally.

Ira Chernus: I'm just saying it's more useful to take it that way. At the same time, I think it's important to hold them accountable and to keep pointing up the hypocrisy of how selective they are in really supporting democracy. What I try to do when I read accounts of what any political leader is saying is to read it on different levels. At one level, of literal or rational analysis of their policy statements and their commitments, you ask are they being consistent and are they being logical. But on another level, it's helpful to learn to read this stuff on the more symbolic level of story, and narrative and myth. And that's a skill that people can learn and practice. Then you're able to see how those different levels interact with each other.

BuzzFlash: Near the end of your commentary you do lay out at least one alternative story, and that's, in essence, what we would call the practical, common-sensical American who's the problem-solver. No dogmatism, just let's get it done. We're not going to let lofty, unachievable ideas get in our way. We're going to move forward, get things done, and that may mean compromise, and making a deal. But we're going to move forward because we're common sense Americans. You point to that as a possible story for the Democrats.

Ira Chernus: Right. I didn't suggest that as the only alternative, and I can see lots of problems with that, too. And I'm not a particularly avid supporter of the Democratic Party. Most of the time, I end up voting for what I think is the lesser of two evils. I simply wanted to make the point that once you start working creatively with this whole reservoir of story motifs around the frontier and pioneering, there are all sorts of possibilities. I was just tossing that out as one example of how alternative policies, that I think would be much better for this country, can be expressed in terms of story and narrative.

Once you encourage people to start thinking creatively about the different ways of telling the American story, there's no end to the possibilities. The really important thing is for us not to get stuck on one particular version of the American story, but to recognize that the history of this country has been an endless debate or an ongoing series of debates about which kinds of stories are best for us to tell about ourselves. The story's never really static. It's always changing, always open to new creative interpretations. I was just tossing out an example of how it might be done.

BuzzFlash: But the Democrats need first to recognize that they have to tell a story.

Ira Chernus: Right.

BuzzFlash: Instead of just offering public policy options.

Ira Chernus: Right. And I'll tell you what -- the Democrats aren't that bad at it. I went to the websites of a couple of the top Democratic senators who were leading the Democratic side in the debate about whether to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. It only took me a few minutes to find that material on those websites. So these people who are successful politicians, who have made it to the United States Senate as Democrats -- they do this. It's just part of their professional skill. So I think the resources are there. They may not have done it in recent years as effectively as the Republicans, but they know how to do it.

BuzzFlash: Ira, thank you very much.

Ira Chernus: I appreciate your interest and the opportunity to share ideas.

* * *

Resources:

Karl Rove's Scheherazade Strategy by Ira Chernus, at Tomdispatch.com

http://spot.colorado.edu/~chernus/, Ira Chernus' home page:

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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