Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Constructing a Salable Security Narrative

Israeli activist and negotiator Daniel Levy has an article in Ha'aretz wondering whether and how Israel can extract itself from a "pro-Israel" US foreign policy that appears fixed on using Israel to fight its proxy wars. The neocon foreign policy, he argues, has inflamed opinion against Israel even as it has eliminated any ability for the US to buffer Israel from hostility. As Levy notes:
An America that seeks to reshape the region through an unsophisticated mixture of bombs and ballots, devoid of local contextual understanding, alliance-building or redressing of grievances, ultimately undermines both itself and Israel. The sight this week of Secretary of State Rice homeward bound, unable to touch down in any Arab capital, should have a sobering effect in Washington and Jerusalem.
It should, but will it?

In the end Levy struggles with the same thing I struggle with, and that a post-Lieberman Democratic party is struggling with: how do you create an alternative narrative where peace and security are achieved with negotiations and painstaking diplomacy rather than bombs and missiles? As Levy notes, the neocon vision glosses over the complexities of local politics, the weighty and difficult to deal with matters of context. The neocon narrative is simple, pristine, and, above all, masculine. Like a good Bruckheimer protaganist, the neocon philosophy brooks no bullshit. It kicks ass and takes names. This, as Ron Suskind expertly points out in his talks and writing, is how the Bush political machine sells. The constituency of people tired of the overwhelming complexity of the modern world is vast, and furiously angry. Ultimately, however, policies born of oversimplification are doomed to disaster. Time enough has passed on the neocon experiment for that to begin to show, although the public has not yet begun to grasp the immensity of this disaster. The resulting dissatisfaction may be enough to turn the tide to a small degree, as the Connecticut primary showed. By a very slim margin.

As many Republican partisans have argued (and I think they're right), rejectionism is not enough to build a political movement. There must be an alternative narrative. But how do you sell complexity in a political system built around 10-second soundbites? How do you get a time-starved public with quick-hit media and short attention spans to engage in the labyrinthine terrain of Lebanese politics? I think a lot about this lately, and as yet I am unconvinced that it is possible. Hopefully there is someone out there in the wide world of politics who can prove me wrong.


Henry said...

I don't think that selling complexity is going to happen. The only immediate option is to 'construct a salable security narrative'. That is to say, politician needs to devise a myth which links the sparse and essentially random points of televised political happenings into a constellation the public finds comprehensible and appealing. It's just creative fiction. This is nothing new. It has always been a part of politics and in the last fifty years it has characterized most of what we see of public party politics. Complexity is all the stuff between the stars that is largely ignored (stuff that isn't talked about on TV). With a diligent effort you can create a new star here and there in order to emphasize your interpretation. But for gods sake don't try to show the people the hubble deep field. That is something reserved for a different world (one such as my school is intended to create). So actual policy can be whatever you want it to be so long as you manage your stars carefully and keep anything that might degrade the image of your constellation confined to the dark interstellar regions.

The problem with this is that because the stories behind different constellations are fiction none may have a privledged position with regard to the truth. Different myths render different constellations from the otherwise amorphous galaxy of stars. The purveyors of these myths can only rely on subjective appeal to get their interpretation to the top of the public awareness. Some people who believe that the policy they advocate is correct for rational reasons wish to explain how it is so to the people. These individuals recognize that, in a world of arbitrary assertions, a rationally verified position would be uniquely well supported. In general these folk are just getting greedy. They seek something more powerful than a good story, something with a more enduring effect. But regardless of the veracity of their positions they almost universally fail to convey reason, and, in trying, also fail to convey a persuasive subjective story. Hence they lose. In such a world all actual policies have an equal chance at success in the political arena because actual policies are obscured by proxy images. If we assume that the adepness one displays in manipulating the public via fictional constructions correlates only weakly with one's ability to formulate sound policy then the net effect of this system is the ship of state set adrift. Of course we have the career bureaucrats and the massive party edifices to control the actual flow of power but they have no direct tie to the intended controller of the public power: the public itself.

The neocons are well aware of this principle. The fact that the people need to be guided by a select few is a fundamental tenet of their belief structure. I don't think that we can doubt that their perspective contains much more subtlety than is conveyed from the president to the people. This is probably by design. Things as they are, with the state of communication and such, the neocons are perfectly correct in their approach to politics. The democrats are just not practical enough to compete in the story arena.

To believe that the people as a whole are guided towared better governors by the failures of their current ones seems unlikely. It seems to me that when they are repulsed by the failure of one scheme they merely lurch away from it toward the next convenient myth. There is no tendency toward greater rationality. It's like trying to teach a deaf dumb and blind kid to dance ballet by poking him with sticks through the bars of a cage. You can agitate him, you can anger him, you can get him to change directions, but you can't give him positive instruction.

I should be packing my stuff up to move to Connecticut so I'll wrap this up. We can't expect people to be intrested in complexity and nuance. We can only interact with the populace as a whole in the most superficial terms. This is not the way things have always been. It is a product of our communicational environment and culture. Under these circumstances the only way coherence can be maintained is for politics to be closely managed by small power groups. This leads to division and ultimately civil conflict. It subjects the people to arbitrary governance. It is closely akin to the experience of the Roman Empire (being the period after the will for self government was gone). Concentrating power allowed the empire to hang on, but once the internal motivating factors that created the empire died (necessitating the concentration of power) out the path was necessarily down hill. Political disengagement is a symptom of our ongoing decline. Concentration of power is merely a stopgap.

Veritas ad Infinitum said...

I agree that, unless we engage in a large-scale rebuilding of the infrastructure of our society, the pure and simple will beat out the ugly truth every time. What disheartens me most is that, as Joe observes, some messages cannot be distilled into a 10-second soundbite. Yet I am not sure it is just the divide between simple and complex--there are certain visceral reactions that may be manipulated such that, even if a narrative could be constructed to compete with the neo-con story, I am not sure it will be as successful in convincing the people. (Exhibit the Air America failed experiment.)

There is an interesting post on the University of Chicago Law blog by Professor Cass Sunstein on August 11 (I don't know how to do links in comments, so you will have to search for it on your own) reporting on some recent findings in sociology/psychology (I know, I know--the bastard science) that I think are pertinent to this discussion. As Sunstein reports:

(a) After people are merely reminded of their own mortality (by being asked, for example, to describe "what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead"), they show stronger support for President Bush and his policies in Iraq. (b) After people are reminded of their mortality OR of the 9/11 attacks, they become more favorably disposed toward President Bush and less favorably disposed toward John Kerry.

Apparently, the results are true for both self-identified liberals and conservatives. The point I see here is that, even if you can boil a complex point down to its soundbite equivalent, I am not sure all ideas are equally competitive in the marketplace of ideas. Scary.