Once Upon a Time, in America…

The right has one fundamental advantage over its opponents: storytelling.

Michael Atkinson

Glenn Beck&#8217;s ideal America, as shown in this illustration from his children&#8217;s book <i>The Christmas Sweater</i>.

Not so long ago, in a typical conniption fit, Glenn Beck blubbered to his TV audience about the loss of America’s greatness. No one faklempts like Beck, and on this October evening he was very moist. He was mourning the America best represented, he thought, by several 1970s network TV ads, including one for Kodak (children, butterflies) and one for Coke (game-losing Mean Joe Green accepting a conciliatory cola from a grade-school boy). Beck whined and moaned and waxed reactionary, choking back saline, pleading with us to remember what life used to be like!” and how it felt!”

It was not an unusual performance. Watching the clip is like watching a clinical video of a beleaguered schizophrenic.

Beck seems aware that his constituency has lost the capacity to discern TV fantasy from what’s real. And we can overlook, for now, the fact that if America used to be united!” as he cried, it was united over unchallenged racism, women’s subjugation and the presumption of a white president.

The substance of Beck & Co.’s discourse is odious trash, of course. But the question remains why it has gained such audience share. Theories abound, most of them unkind to a big chunk of American voters. But watch Beck spin a fable about the glory days of America by way of something as transparently disingenuous as a TV commercial, and you begin to see the structural trump card – story.

The right has long been adept at spinning yarns, at limning fictions. Storytelling is as old in human culture as parts of our frontal lobe. Scores of psychological studies have suggested that we have an innate capacity to understand life via stories, to use storytelling as an evolutionary advantage (learning decision-making skills, avoiding danger), and to adapt socially using empathy.

Novelist Michael Chabon writes in Manhood for Amateurs about how, although he is a Jew and a pretty irreligious one at that, he’s never felt slighted by the social predominance of the Jesus-birth story at Christmas – not even in the form of the school Nativity plays in which his kids take part. In fact, he loves it. What he loves is the story itself, which tells the truth about the hope and the promise that ought to attend to the birth of every child, however mean or difficult the conditions of that birth,” and about the dangerous and woefully unredeemed state of the world and the potential that all children have to redeem it.”

It does him no harm, as a non-believer. “[O]n the contrary, it breaks my heart every time,” he writes.

Chabon’s point is that his seduction is fictional – that stories have valuable meaning to us. His observations speak volumes about taletelling’s ability to forge significance in lives that may otherwise seem aimless or unpurposed. 

Storytelling is a codified, public strategy. It is often used opportunistically, as a psycho-social trope aimed toward a predetermined result – a schema selling a product or a pitch or a persona, a therapeutic process, a technique to persuade the public to favor a politician’s hairball agenda. Television conservatives, amply backed by parties and think tanks and strategists, don’t do anything by accident – unless it’s a mistake. Crafting their ideology as narrative is a studious marketing ploy. How best to sell this agenda, this tax cut, this Democrat demonization?

Tell a tale. Campfire stories about Commie boogeyman and welfare cheats, bedtime stories about how things used to be, once upon a time. To dip even your littlest toe into the river of conservative media is to hear stories, stories of evil homosexuals, beatific soldiers, heroic Republican presidents, and halcyon days of law, order, authority and traditional values.

The problem is, leftists do not tell stories – whether true or fabricated – that involve the past. Progressives opine for the practical future, a future that they aim to create free of turmoil or injustice. That is, a future without stories. Stories require conflict, emotional desire, heroes and villains.

What kind of story could a liberal tell about an unconflicted and equitable tomorrow? Unless you are able to invoke an idealized past, which you can mythify as narrative, your hands will be tied.For progressives, the past, as a tale told, is not on the docket.

We’re talking about presentation, not laws and rights and actions. As long as American politics remain a matter of simulacra – of rhetoric and persona – the storytellers will dominate the discussion, doing what myth has always done – supply order in place of chaos and uncertainty. This is our modern tragedy: Recent history offers a parade of evil fabulists, from Hitler to Karl Rove to Kim Jong-Il, all of them bewitching storytellers.

The Tea Party movement is nothing more than a cycle of antique fictions told over and over again, distorting themselves as they go. 

Progressives can use storytelling. Michael Moore’s instinct for sardonic fable and punchline juice has proven effective, though troubling, and the voices that rose in counterpoint to the Bush II administration certainly experimented with the mode. But these attempts have been reaction – without rightist evil in power, liberals don’t have a story to tell. The question may be, should we? Should we stoop to Beckian depths? Is it a compromise of responsible social politics? (Obama, a proficient yarn-spinner, is nothing if not The Great Compromiser.) Leftists find storytelling uncomfortable, understandably, because it’s not reality. We may never quite win – but at least we’ll have our souls.

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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