Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More On Security Narratives

First a little housekeeping. As I'm sure you've noticed, the blog looks a little different. I've had several requests for a newer look or more readable fonts, so I thought it was about time for a makeover. Henry requested dark fonts on light background, which I didn't do simply because I liked the look of this template. I certainly could go to that format if it is preferred, let me know what you think. Also I modified this template to widen the text space because it seemed awfully narrow and necessitated a lot of scrolling down to read anything. I, however, have a widescreen laptop, so I'm not sure if this will cause problems on standard monitors. Please let me know if any of you are forced to have a side-scroll bar and I can narrow it back down a bit.

On to the topic. Henry and Veritas both had excellent replies to my initial post on this, so I'd like to comment on those, and on the Sunstein blog post V mentioned.

Henry's comments reflected his usual deep pessimism towards the ability of the public to maturely deal with difficult topics combined with a remarkable optimism over the ability to essentially reprogram the public through a more enlightened educational regime. I share much of his skepticism on the former issue, but, while I am guardedly optimistic on the effect of his planned educational makeover, I am also highly pessimistic over the prospects for the implementation of such a regime. As such, I must ask what more pragmatic near-term steps might be available to us. Henry's forecast in that case is fairly bleak, and I don't think he's wrong.

In recognizing the contemporary political strength of the neocon approach, as we both do, we are propelled into the world of paternalism. This is a dangerous place to be, as Henry also acknowledges. It is relatively easy to see when our government is being stupid (particularly when it is monumentally so), but it is nonetheless difficult for an individual or group to justify appointing itself as the overseer of the public good, to maintain its power through deception or manipulation, to exercise it for the good of all. That sounds a lot like tyranny to me. But if tyranny wins elections, what then for democracy?

The upside is I think good narratives sell. We should all recognize by now the immense power of a good story. While it is unfortunate that it doesn't appear to make a big difference whether the story is true, or indeed even coherent, there is no reason why it couldn't be coherent and true. So I think the duty of a committed democrat (small d) in this era is to find ways couch truth and wise policy into a convincing narrative.

The obvious question then is to what degree complexity inherent in truth and good policy can be packaged in a narrative, and, failing that, to what extent it can be boiled away for the sake of storytelling while maintaining fidelity to a democratic ideal. Is it enough to believe in the big picture from which you've constructed your simple myth? Is it possible to avoid the pitfalls of paternalism while telling the public less than the full (tedious) story?

Then, of course, there is still the difficulty of V's comments on Sunstein's mortality salience. While I imagine the issue encompasses a broad sweep of irrationalities of which MS is only a subset, it's a good enough proxy for this discussion. This is, sadly, where the neocons truly shine. Not only have they recognized and embraced the need for paternalism to facilitate the implementation of complex policy, and the need for a simple narrative to sell their paternalism, they have crafted a narrative that appeals to deep emotional needs and responses within the electorate. They take our irrationalities and amplify them back to us. They only needed a violent conflict to tap those emotions and have now created one that will last decades.

As I mentioned in my initial post I am increasingly skeptical about all of this. V asked me in a recent conversation whether I believe we will see an American city nuked in our lifetimes, something he believes (correct me if I'm wrong) will happen. I replied that it is still avoidable. I don't think it will happen in the immediate future, nor do I think events have spun so far out of control that they cannot be reconciled before it's too late. But without any doubt the clock is ticking. And it will take a complete repudiation of everything the neocons have done and everything they believe to avoid a catastrophic global conflict. As much as people are growing frustrated with them, I'm not sure I see that happening. I doubt that we have time to just let things sort themselves out. These are difficult questions and difficult issues, but we need answers sooner rather than later. This country is in dire need leadership. No doubt there are great leaders here, it is only unfortunate that our political system does such a poor job of selecting for them...


Veritas ad Infinitum said...

"But if tyranny wins elections, what then for democracy?"

That is the million dollar question, if you ask me.

I do not mean to come across as a pessimist in predicting a major catastrophe in our lifetimes, but I can see no way around it. To be sure, I am not convinced it will be a nuclear detonation--in fact, I see that as a less likely scenario than others, like attacks on essential facilities and transportation systems. But in whatever form the next terrorist attack will come, I am convinced it will come. My worry is that we will react in the same way the next time that we did in connection with 9/11: a call to arms. I do not believe that is necessarily the right response--but it is the one that "comes from the gut" and, therefore, has the greatest salience for the people.

In short, maybe there is some way to counter the visceral reactions that people have when it comes to terror, but I can't figure it out. At least not so far.

On the housekeeping matters, I like the new setup better than the old setup, but I think I might agree with Henry that black writing on light background might be better on the eyes. I would be convinced if there is some methodological study out there about the readability differences. I will snoop around and see what I can find. In any event, I want to voice my gratitude to Joe for being the shopkeeper around here and keeping this blog alive.

Veritas ad Infinitum said...


There is too much conflicting information online to tell whether one website format is better than another. Pretty much everyone agrees that contrast is good (duh), but's about as far as agreement went.

Here are a couple of interesting studies on the topic:

The first study suggests that dark green on pale yellow is the best for viewability. (Although it is kinda ugly, it does read well.) The other paper suggests that black ink on white background is best, but notes that may simply be because that is what most readers are familiar with.

Anyway, I vote for (1) dark green on pale yellow; or (2) black on white.