Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The New Master Narrative: The Hits Keep Coming
As anyone who follows sports knows, there's something self-reinforcing in a losing streak, or in the baseball subset, a batting slump. First one thing goes wrong, then another, and you try changing things, or you try to get back to what was going right before, but you don't exactly know what it was. Things once just felt right, but now everything you do is over-compensation. Everything just feels wrong. Some say it's like being caught in quicksand (as it's popularly depicted) - the harder you struggle to get free the deeper you sink, and you die. And in sports it seems your luck runs out. You get bad calls from the referee, umpire or line judge. Before you shrugged them off. Now they really hurt, and make things even worse.
This happens in politics too. The Democrats have been on a losing streak since the Supreme Court stopped the recount of the Florida votes in January 2000 and decided the best thing for the country, really, was to rule that George Bush should be the new president, not Al Gore. Since then the Democrats can't win for losing, as they say. Push back on policies or specific decisions and people think you're somewhere between stupidly obstructionist and out of touch, or more malevolently, you hate America and want us to "lose" the big struggle of the moment. Decide to agree with anything and you're seen as lacking in principle, or at least original thought - thus the Republican Party endless saying they are the "party of ideas," even if the ideas are recycled simple-minded catch phrases from the Reagan years or economic supply-side theory from decades ago that just does work, like the famous Laffer Curve (cut taxes and government revenue will grow). And the other side reinforces it all, building a sort of "loser" narrative that is, in itself, self-reinforcing. All mistakes, even the small ones, are magnified. Internal disagreement is lack of principle. Enthusiasm is pathological behavior, as with Howard Dean's famous "scream" that proved he was so bat-shit crazy he should never hold any office, not even dogcatcher. What you get right is an accident. You said the war was a really, really bad idea? Lucky guess. And so on and so forth.
But narratives change, and batting slumps end. And suddenly Reggie Jackson can't hit the curve, or gets struck out on three screaming fastballs, right over the plate, from an impossibly young rookie pitcher in a key game (some of us saw that happen out here on Los Angeles many years ago). But what changes?
For the Bush administration, with its dismal polling and the word "incompetent" floating around, the narrative changed in September of 2005, with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. That didn't go well. Michael Brown was shamed out of his post running FEMA, then all the talk about "no one thought the levees would fail" was exposed as not quite so, and Brown turned out to actually have done his best. There was a lot of talk about a wondrous rebuilding program for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but there's nothing much happening. And then the "incompetent" narrative started to snowball. It was self-reinforcing. Just what was that business about privatizing Social Security? And if the economy is doing so fine, why are wages flat or falling? What was that business about that Harriet woman nominated to the Supreme Court, that odd little woman, massively unqualified but a personal friend? And you think the folks from the United Arab Emirates would be fine running operations at our major ports?
And then, to support the new narrative, in the same manner the media and commentators had "investigated" the "loser" Democrats, they turned to "proving" the new narrative is a pretty nifty way to explain things - "It's true, it's true, it's really true!" Of course the news and opinion media, commercial enterprises, sustain themselves, and prosper if they can, by providing documentation of what people believe is so. The idea is to sense what the narrative is and give people what they want. That's the business model.
So what no one wanted to know about before became what people wanted to see, and they got it, with looks back on the war that seems to have actually been a major bone-headed idea. So now it's safe to look back - no one will be miffed at things like the Downing Street memos being discussed, or examining the CIA leak story, including the delicious detail of the president and vice president secretly declassifying carefully selected data and having one of their guys provide it on the sly to their plant at the New York Times. Now over sixty percent of Americans think that was either illegal or unethical. The narrative changed. And that certainly makes all this talk of nuking Iran so they don't spend the next eight or ten years building "the bomb" harder to make sound reasonable. Before the narrative changed people would have said, well, that would be bad thing, but the "grownups" in the White House knows what's best.
Those days are gone. And gone are the days when the American public stoically accepted this war in Iraq would cost a lot of lives and that ten thousand would return badly maimed, because it was worth it. The WMD thing was a bummer, and the administration (all but Cheney) admitted Iraq had nothing much to do with 9/11, and it would have been nice to have killed or at least captured that Osama fellow, and we do seem to be creating a hundred new terrorists for every one we kill over there, but, because the previous narrative was strong, the core of supporters hung on. We were doing some good. The "if we make them create a democracy in that particular place at this particular time the world will be better and safer" was sort of working. But those elected in Iraq cannot seem to form a government and they seem to have a civil war going on now. Not good, and when the narrative changes, words like "we're making progress" and "they will build a secular unity government, just wait" just don't work. The push-back from the administration and those who don't sense the new narrative - that the media is purposefully only reporting the bad news and all that - is met with anger from the press and scorn from most of the public.
Now you can think of that as people "finally waking up" and the truth prevailing, but it's more like a shift in the prevailing and accepted narrative. Not so long ago "the truth" was something quite different. On the other hand, the previous narrative required a lot of self-deception - one had to ignore a lot of unpleasant information and cling to "larger truths" and some pretty odd ideas, like democracies are inherently peaceful, and "they hate us for our freedoms" not our policies, not to mention minor odd ideas, like we'll be greeted as liberators, the war and reconstruction will pay for itself, we'll be out of there in six months and our buddy, Ahmed Chalabi, will run the joint just fine. Narratives aligned with reality work better. Idealism is fine, of course, but has only vague connections to the real world. That's how it got its name.
So we're in the new narrative, the one that centers on "incompetence" and deception - sometime lies and sometimes just blindness.
The addition to the new narrative, on Wednesday, April 12th, the talk of the day, was this item on the front page of the Washington Post - Joby Warrick reporting that a team of private-sector scientists hired by the Pentagon in 2003 to inspect Iraqi trailers suspected of being mobile weapons labs came up empty. They weren't any such things. The Pentagon guys said they were pretty much "sand toilets." They sent their report in. Two days later the president said we'd found the weapons of mass destruction. It was these trailers. The administration kept saying that for months.
They didn't read the report? They read the report and decided it was something inconvenient they shouldn't mention, as that would make them look incompetent? They decided to lie to the American people? Or in good faith they decided the report could be wrong and later evidence would surely show these really were what they said they were (optimism and idealism mixed)? They ignored the report they commissioned because they believed this just couldn't be so (self-delusion)?
Who knows? But the story fits the new narrative, so it was page one.
Those stuck in the old narrative said things like this - "The Pentagon didn't send one team of experts to review the trailers; they sent three, presumably to get a diverse analysis of the evidence, especially since the pre-war intel on WMD had come up remarkably short. That sounds like a prudent strategy to me, having competing teams research the same equipment and evidence to develop independent analyses to present to the Pentagon. They did so, and two of the three teams provided conclusions that fit the pre-war intel, while one did not."
The reply was this - "Nice try, but cutesy advertising jingles to the contrary, this episode fits the usual MO of the Bush administration perfectly: a flat statement of fact about intelligence matters that's made with great fanfare even though they know there's significant dissent within the intelligence community. ... So: Intent to deceive? Check. Unreasonable decision? Check. Deliberate lie? Check."
That's the new narrative. It's hard to see how it will change back.
There's more here.
The Slow-Motion Trap
His presidency was built on secrecy and, we now know, on lies. The more Bush struggles to free himself, the more his past deceptions bind him.
Sidney Blumenthal, SALON.COM, Thursday, April 16, 2006
This is long and detailed, and about the whole CIA leak scandal, but it comes down to this -
That's putting the new narrative pretty bluntly, and it adds the element of "reality increasingly failing to cooperate" with the story line.
So who is having the losing streak now?
But wait! There's more!
Fred Kaplan offers this -
Well, there are three big guns so far.
The first is General Anthony Zinni who last month called for Rumsfeld to resign, and he's been on all the talks shows chatting up his new book, The Battle for Peace. You can catch him on video here, on Meet the Press saying this -
So who's he? He's the Marine general whose last job was heading up Central Command, running military operations in the Persian Gulf and South Asia.
A second was Army Major General Paul Eaton, letting fly in the New York Times with this, calling Rumsfeld "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically," and a man who "has put the Pentagon at the mercy of his ego, his Cold Warrior's view of the world, and his unrealistic confidence in technology to replace manpower." Eaton ran the program to train the Iraqi military.
Then there is Lieutenant General Greg Newbold, the former operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Time Magazine here.
Kaplan summarizes Newbold saying he -
Maybe so, but they're moving the new narrative along.
And Kaplan was writing before the fourth retired general weighed in, and the Post carried that on page one, Thursday, April 13, with this -
The narrative sure has changed, and freed up a lot of people. They're saying off things, and with Batiste there goes Big Red - "No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great - Duty First."
This is a losing streak with no possible recovery. If Bush fired Rumsfeld? That would just make things worse, confirming a key person you lauded was, well, incompetent. So you keep him and let him prove it further?
It's the trap of the self-reinforcing losing streak. What to do? Cut taxes again? Nuke Iran? Say everyone is wrong about everything?
What was that about quicksand?