Monthly Archives: April 2017

13 Terror is a story infection

For 15 years,, at the Center for Narrative Studies (CNS) where the Republic of Stories emanates from, has prided itself on being up to date on what comes out on storytelling and narrative in the popular media.  One new book recently caught our attention.  “Storytelling-Bewitching of the Modern Mind” by Christian Salmon. (Verso 2010)

This is a good general work for anyone new to the story world.  But reading it, we were struck by how old, how familiar,how yesterday it all sounded. Salmon’s newly discovered sense of story was ours more than a decade back and so much has changed since then. It was when we came to this long quote on page 5 that we suddenly realized why we might have heard it all before.

From cavemen to scholars, people have been drawn to fire pits, water coolers, theaters and grave sites to share stories…. But since the postmodern literary movement of the 1960s swept out of academia and into the wider culture, narrative thinking has seeped into other fields. Historians, lawyers, physicians, economists and psychologists have all rediscovered the power of stories to frame reality, and storytelling has come to rival logic as a way to understand legal cases, geography, illness or war. Stories have become so pervasive, critics fear they have become a dangerous replacement for facts and reasoned argument…

“We always knew stories are really powerful. They’ve probably never been treated before as if they mattered” in shaping our public and private lives, said Paul Costello, co-founder of the small Center for Narrative Studies in Washington, D.C., which was formed six years ago to track the spreading use and practice of narrative. “Before, it was always ‘That’s only a story, give me the facts.”‘ Now, he said, more people are realizing that “stories have real effects that have got to be looked at seriously.” (Lynn Smith LA Times, “Not the Same Old Story” 2001)

We were totally stunned to hear CNS being quoted back to us-some 9 years later. Lynn Smith’s article as we remembered, was  written in November 2001, as an early  post 9-11 diagnosis. It went on:

In these tale-telling times, the crisis ignited on Sept. 11 has been called a clash of narratives between the stories that terrorists use and those Westerners believe…

Our storywise business has been around for 15 years-that is hard to believe,  and what a decade and a half we have lived through.  Somehow, 9-11 was a watershed, a singular event that made us all wake up to the power of stories, but we still have much to learn.

The recent “Burning the Koran”  and “Ground Zero Mosque” epilogue nine years on from 9-11 all prove the original point, that 9-11 is like all great tragedies, a black hole of pain that keeps sparking stories that reflect our yearly attempt to make sense of the senseless. We have memorials to visit now, that is true, but what we need most is meaning, for it all to make some sense. We still need stories.

If we can blame Muslim radicals or the government or the CIA or some other equally implausible co-conspirator, we can at least console ourselves that we still live in a cause and effect world. But if 9-11 was as random and one-off as Hurricane Katrina, and as inexplicable as a Wall Street collapse or a Gulf oil spill, and we still don’t exactly know why or ‘what now?’ for any of them, then hysteria replaces history. The media of necessity becomes a megaphone for our fears.

When the tenth anniversary of 9-11 comes around, we can expect an annual return to this insanity as our only way to remind ourselves of a deeper truth, we still don’t get it.  Despite two wars, billions of dollars spent on Homeland Security, and despite no repeat terror attack on the nation, why are we still so scared? Because we still  don’t understand Terror… Because we still don’t understand story.

Terror is less a reality than a story infection called “dread” and we have caught the disease. We have allowed our leaders and  ourselves to choose a future more shaped by our fears than by our faith in our own resilience.  We badly need some new and better kinds of stories, and some new and better kinds of leaders. We badly need new story leadership.

And we are sure  the next 15 years of storywise will be even more urgent and necessary than the past 15 years. So stay tuned.

21 On the advantages of being naive

At a seminar recently with a group of Israeli and Palestinian artists here on a Cultural Exchange, I was describing  our new program, New Story Leadership, and how unlike other leadership programs, we base our work around the power of stories.

I could see that some of the writers in the group were clearly getting it, how to apply a set of literary ideas and practices to peace building. But others were frowning with frustration, until one gentleman put up his hand to tell me that ‘These ideas are all very well but you are totally naive.”  I was curious to find out why he said that. He explained, “The Middle East is much more complicated.”  I wasn’t sure what to say except to acknowledge his opinions. But for the rest of the seminar, his comments acted as a mocking chorus, questioning  every statement I made.

I should be used to that by now, as I imagine most people are, who dare to do Middle East peace work. A year or so back when NSL was nothing more than an idea, there was a veritable chorus of folks who told us we were mad, that we had no idea of what we were doing, that we had no financial plan, (which was pretty much true then) that we would have to have a bus load of trauma counselors ready for anyone we brought to Washington from Gaza, that the people-to-people approach of other programs was a waste of time, that this other program was a disaster, that this newer program was trapped in funding politics, and on and on.  The coup de grace came from an activist in Jerusalem who got so furious with our idea of bringing young Israeli and Palestinian students to Washington to work together in internships, that she walked out on our coffee date screaming, “You are nothing but a revolutionary tourist!” I have been called many things before, but never that.  She was right about the tourist, it being my first visit to the region, but revolutionary was  way too flattering.

The New Story Leadership did get up and running and last summer, we had our first ten students, five Palestinians and five Israelis and they had an extraordinary experience, one that seems to have made a difference even at this early stage. But for us, even to have launched the program in the face of all these disqualifying narratives was in itself probably the greatest achievement.  They said we couldn’t do it.

The Middle East as a story system aggressively defends its territory-there are “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out Stories” told everywhere, and one begins to understand why the subject is so full of pessimism and frustration. But one suspects that these are often the voices of the many vested interests that profit from the conflict NOT being solved.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton keeps saying that ‘ the status quo is not sustainable’ but the point is that for 63 years, it has been quite sustainable. As I told the artists rather facetiously, if peace was declared tomorrow between Palestine and Israel, there would be 5 million peace workers out of a job. Including me. The Middle East seems to support the biggest Peace Industry in the world.

When I revisit that seminar conversation, I want to replay it so that next time when someone says that we are naive, I am going to own it with pride. The theologians call it a second naivete but it is the same idea, that someone coming new to a challenge has the advantage of a mature ignorance. Life teaches you that you don’t need to know half of what you think you do, and the real challenge is what you need to unlearn. When one is working with the younger generation, who would want to burden them with any more than what they already carry from their experiences of war and occupation? It is a crime to discount their hope by calling them naive-they are supposed to be! We have to discover our second naivete, and make sure they don’t  too quickly lose their first.

That is why we assert our three core ideas in a very naive and uncomplicated way,

  • first,  that stories matter
  • second, that the Middle East needs a new story if it is going to find a sustainable path to peace
  • third, that the young people whose future is most at stake need to be inspired to take the lead by creating that story together

David Grossman, the great Israeli novelist has a new book called “To the End of the Land.” In an interview recently, he said

” We need some naivete to continue to believe in the option to change things-even in order to believe in mankind.”

So, here’s to naivete.

Here’s to refusing to see things other than clearly and simply, no matter how complicated.

Of course it can be complicated, but the simplest things  mostly are, strangely enough. And its we who complicate them!

Oct 22 Defending the right to be afraid-to be very afraid.

An NPR journalist, (now former) appears on FOX news earlier this week to share that when he gets on a plane with passengers wearing traditional Muslim dress, he feels AFRAID.

Because he got fired for it, FOX is now publicly campaigning against NPR to defend the right of a journalist to be afraid. Whatever about the debate,  the interesting fact is that FEAR is in the news-and one’s right to be afraid.  And it seems we as citizens are being invited every day to more fully exercise that right. Fear terrorists, fear immigrants, fear child predators, fear the government, fear Death Panels, fear China, fear Iran, fear Arabs, fear Muslims, fear the Tea Party, fear Sarah Palin, fear Obama, fear gay marriage. We could even say “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” but FDR beat us to it. Is it just me or does anyone else suspect an election is coming on?

Elections used to be about fresh and bold new ideas and inspiring candidates. Now they have a default position which is about manufacturing fear. Watch any attack ad and you are told, “someone is too dangerous” “someone else is too radical”  etc etc. It is what we wrote about in The Presidential Plot, which turns out to be a manual that applies to any election, 2008 or 2010 or 2012.

Here is an except:

THE CATASTROPHE FALLACY (Chapter 13, page 185)

We know the old preacher’s trick is to tell us, “The end is nigh!” and so, we must convert now or eternally perish. It used to work, but nowadays, government and politics have supplanted it with their own “Fear of the Future” story package. It’s how insurance makes its business, but not normally the business of government.

That is what made the Millennium Bug so irresistible, because no one could contradict it, and no one was prepared to be wrong, because the stakes were too high. No one wanted planes or Wall Street to crash. We were disarmed by the pseudo consequentialism of the story. Threaten someone with a future catastrophe if you want them to pay attention, and if you can scare them enough, they won’t contradict you because who can contradict fear?

The preacher preaches Hellfire, and the Doomsdayist describes the nuclear winter and Homeland Security warns of another 9-11, and we see it in our imaginations and so we feel it. Fear is physiological and it takes over to make even the fake feel real. No one can prove its right, which is why it’s so powerful, and no one can prove its wrong, which makes it so hard to disarm, and no one can afford to dismiss it in case it is right. Any dissent can be labeled as a reckless disregard for the future.

The same brilliant narrative cunning informs the way we go to war, whether it is Vietnam and the dominos falling, or we fight the terrorists in Iraq rather than they follow us here. (Another Cheney concoction) Or think about the gay marriage question and evangelists warning us that if we legalize it, marriage will be destroyed. No one can prove it, and no one can disprove it, and no one wants marriage destroyed. So it’s narrative checkmate. The military hawks love this ploy because if you dare to oppose the war, you will be accused of not supporting the troops and putting their lives in danger. Prove it? They can’t. Disprove it? You can’t. Will you risk it? No.

When you want to shut someone up, concoct the lethal mixture of fear and the future, and put the burden of proof on your opponent, which is to say, you prove me wrong, when in fact the burden of proof is logically on the person trying to persuade you.

The campaigns will use this tactic to perfection around the issues of the economy and taxes, or health care or Iraq or the current catastrophist narratives about energy and global warming. These predictions might be right, but if they disqualify dissent, they are dogma parading as data. The church gave that business away some time back, but trading in narrative futures by peddling some fact-proof dogmas about that future is still a thriving business.

In a later chapter, we will offer some antidotes to these poisonous story strategies, and elaborate a narrative ethic that in summary says that any story that stories over or stories out other voices is narratively unethical and a threat to the Republic of Stories where every voice has to count, especially the voice of dissent and the voice of the minority.

If you want to read more, grab yourself a copy  The Presidential Plot-How elections work