The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.
Nearly everyone I've seen since Sunday has wanted to talk about Drew Westen's analysis of President Obama appearing that day on the New York Times op-ed page. Me too. It is an exceptionally acute piece of political analysis, braiding the public and private without presuming too much or sinking too deeply into the mire of pop psychology (where a public figure's relationship with his parents is presumed to explain absolutely everything).
Westen's piece has been bouncing through my brain, following close on two other events worth noting: four days of rioting in Britain, and the appointment of Philip Levine as U.S. Poet Laureate. How do they connect? That's the story.
What I admired most in Westen's essay is his willingness to point out how the president might have spoken to the hopes and fears of voters. He lists all the things that Mr. Obama hasn't troubled to explain to the electorate, for instance, contrasting FDR's willingness to call out the villains of Wall Street with Obama's disinclination to discomfort the powerful:
In contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it.
Wisely, Westen doesn't say whether Obama "seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit" on account of poor political judgment (the belief that "that 'centrist' voters like 'centrist' politicians"), expediency ("a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election"), or the corruption of "a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars."
Perhaps it's all three, or reasons as yet unknown. What does it matter? Our minds desire explanations so much that we craft them from any scrap of information that happens to be lying about. But the stark truth of this political moment is that what matters most is what leaders do, not why they do it.
The riots in Britain, spreading through London and the Midlands, are pitting roving groups of young people against the police and vigilante groups springing up to protect property. On both sides of the Atlantic, the coverage is mostly about the problems of policing and punishing looters. In British media, stories about the rioters make it clear there are no slogans, no programs, there is no larger organization to what Guardian reporters Paul Lewis and James Harkin call "unadulterated, indigenous anger and ennui."
Here and there in the media clips, here are glimpses of the heady mix that ignited this inchoate rage: cuts in jobs and education, "no opportunity," says one rioter interviewed on BBC4, "it was bound to happen someday." The precipitating incidents were grounded in racism and class discrimination, to be sure: rioting in Tottenham erupted from a peaceful demonstration demanding justice for Mark Duggan, a young black man killed by police. But reports from the burgeoning crowds make it clear that rioting and looting are being carried out by people of all races, mostly (but not exclusively) men, both employed and unemployed. In a Guardian op-ed, Nina Power pointed to "policies of the past year [that] have clarified the division between the entitled and the dispossessed in extreme terms."
Sound familiar? How many young people feel abandoned by power, left to fend for themselves in a world that considers them collateral damage? Whatever else we can say about looters smashing plate glass to get at consumer goods, this much is clear: they are not experiencing their actions as having consequences for other ordinary human beings such as themselves, who must clear up the messes and make up for the losses. There is an empathy gap at the top, creating the indifference that ignites anomie; and an answering empathy gap in the streets, that makes the phrase "civil society" sound like a joke.
There isn't much doubt in my mind that whether it is expressed in despair and resignation or violent street battles, these industrial societies, now dominated more than ever by entrenched economic power, are tumbling into the gap between what so many of us know to be true and the glaringly false official stories we are being sold. Blather about economic recovery is slathered like icing over a fallen cake, failing to disguise the shame of our official indifference to epidemic unemployment. (Check out what Robert Reich has to say about it.) The yawning void at the center of our political culture was created by leaders' failure to convey the stories that ring true to lived experience, that call out wrongdoers, and that point to our own agency, and to our evergreen ability to change direction, no matter how far we may have proceeded down a dangerous path.
Referring to Martin Luther King's profoundly optimistic assertion that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Drew Westen predicts that with Obama's "deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation."
I don't like predictions, as you may have observed, so I won't echo Westen's. I like reality's tendency to confound our attempts to read the future, especially when the surprises it delivers are happy ones. The antidote to official falsehood is a flood of true stories. I'll add to Westen's evocation of "movies, novels and 'news stories,'" of bedtime stories, holy books, and legal arguments, the power of poems, plays, dances, visual artworks, songs, and everything that artists craft with empathy and imagination to create the answering echo in our own hearts that says, "Yes, I feel you, and we are connected," which is the precursor to healing action.
Philip Levine is an interesting choice for Poet Laureate, because, as the Librarian of Congress who appointed Levine said (exposing the gap in his own awareness), "I find him an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before."
Here's a taste of Levine's poetry "An Abandoned Factory, Detroit," a story that needs to be told today as much as when he wrote it:
We stand in the rain in a long line
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
Some readers tell me they skip down to the bottom of my blogs to play the song that appears there as the soundtrack for my essay, which is pretty much how I intend these musical links to be used. Usually, the music resonates with the theme of my writing; I think of it as adding a layer of meaning. Today, though, I'm just happy that Marc Anthony Thompson, whose music I love, has finally released a new record (as always, under the name "Chocolate Genius"). I love just about all of Swansongs. Here is "Ready Now," more as respite than rehearsal for social change. I hope you enjoy it.