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Thursday, 27 April 2006
Truth and Authenticity: More on the Power of Narrative
Topic: Reality-Based Woes

Truth and Authenticity: More on the Power of Narrative

As mentioned elsewhere in passing, will people, angry over the high price of gasoline these days, put two and two together and figure out that if you go to war with a major oil producing country you take maybe thirty percent of the world's oil out of production for a time, and in this case the time has stretched to over three years. That might make for tight supplies and, as a result, high prices. World demand is high and the insurgents keep blowing up the pipelines in Iraq, and making the rebuilding of the refineries and ports damned hard - and the contactor doing that work, the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg-Brown-Root, is charging the government a fortune and not much is getting done, given the security problems.

The Iraqis were supposed to greet us as liberators and we'd be out in six months, as Rumsfeld said, with Ahmed Chalabi running the place for us, as Cheney had arranged, with Chalabi's old University of Chicago buddies Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. But what should have happened just didn't happen.

So, if people start to think about the crude removed from the market, as the result of "the long war," as they're now calling it, and see the enormous profits from Exxon-Mobile and the rest, and think about the president and vice president coming from the oil industry... this could be trouble. Who to blame for paying a hundred dollars to fill up the SUV? The guys who started the war, or at least these same guys who gambled it would be six months and out, with our Chalabi in charge there.

Blame the war?

Well, the administration has another view. It's not the war. It's Bill Clinton's fault, or at the fault of the environmentalists he seemed to like, and Clinton's vice president, Gore, writing books on global warming, and now with that new film (see this discussion). These were the folks, Democrats and global warming chicken-little types, who opposed opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling a decade ago. That's what the president say here, without naming Clinton or Gore directly. But the implication is there.

It's another "it's not my fault" argument, of course. And the Clinton-Gore administration is still wonderfully useful - "How can you blame us when they did that?" That actually does seem to almost always work. It must be that Clinton fellow, or his oh-so-earnest sidekick, Al Gore. After Clinton got caught with his pants actually down, and fudged his response to the nation and the courts, it only seems fair to most people to think there may be something to what the Bush-Cheney administration claims. Clinton must be at the root of the problem, whatever the problem is. It's sort of ingrained in the national myth that explains everything.

Do you question conventional wisdom, what everyone understands to be so? As Josh Marshall finds here, someone was dumb enough to do that. It seems a reporter cornered Al Hubbard, the director of the president's National Economic Council, and Keith Hennessey, deputy assistant to the president for economic policy, and asked about the oil thing. What about it? Would the oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) have offset the oil we cannot seem to get from Iraq at the moment?

The transcript is here -
Reporter: The president made the point that had ANWR been approved ten years ago, you'd get about a million barrels a day. Had the Iraq production resumed to the level that had been projected before the war, how much would that contribute today?

Hubbard: I actually don't know the precise answer to that. What's really most important, though, is that we've become less reliable on overseas sources of crude oil and other sources of energy, and more reliant on energy from within our 50 states ...

Reporter: You have no estimate, though, about what Iraqi production could be?

Hubbard: I do not have it.

Hennessey: We can get back to you.

Hubbard: Yes, we can get back to you with that.

Reporter: That would be useful. I mean, just - obviously, since the president has chosen one interesting example in ANWR, the Iraq one would be an interesting one to compare it to, whether that would be more or less than a billion - a million a day.

Hubbard: Yes, we will have to get back to you on that.
They never expected anyone would put two and two together and ask. They just didn't expect the question.

Tim Grieve here helps out, but not in a nice way -
Iraq's prewar oil production has been estimated at somewhere between 2.6 million and 3 million barrels per day. In July 2003 - which is to say, two months after Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq - the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Iraqi Oil Ministry together set goals of getting production back up to 2.5 million barrels per day by the end of March 2004 and up to 3 million barrels per day by December 2004. But Iraq's oil production averaged just 2 million barrels a day in 2004, USA Today says, and by August 2005, it had dropped to 1.86 million barrels per day. By this February, the Times of London says, production had dropped further, to just 1.5 million barrels a day.

So to answer the question: If you assume that Iraq was producing 2.6 million barrels of oil per day before the war started, then it appears that production has dropped by 1.1 million barrels per day since then. If you assume that Iraq was producing 3 million barrels per day before the war, then it appears production has dropped by 1.5 million barrels per day. In either case, the daily oil production lost to the war exceeds that which the president says would have been gained from drilling in the ANWR.
Oh. Facts. They're awful things.

Luckily for the administration, the American public doesn't much like facts. We like a good narrative and what feels right - that "gut feeling," our instincts. That's why we elected a "I go with my gut" president who doesn't much care for detail. He's one of us.

So the facts don't matter much. Of course Grieve lays out some others. Our death toll in Iraq is approaching two thousand four hundred, and a new report from the Congressional Research Service estimates that if Congress approves the supplemental spending bill now before it, a total of three hundred twenty billion dollars will have been appropriated for the war, so far. And the Congressional Research Service looks at the Pentagon's "burn rate" of about six and half billion a month, so you see where this is going. And of there's the other study suggesting that the total cost of the war, including the long-term care that will be required for its veterans, could reach around two trillion dollars.

But that's beside the point. People don't think about such things when you're talking about the grand narrative of the noble good guys (us) fighting pure evil (them). They're just facts.

But some facts do intrude. And that messes things up. Thursday, April 27, filling the twenty-gallon of your Ford here in Los Angeles would cost you about sixty-five dollars, and next week will be higher, and every week after that. When you have to drive a lot of miles a week, as you do in Los Angeles and so many other places, sixty-five dollars means a lot more to you than this two trillion dollars, or the forty grand every man woman and child will carry as their share of the national debt for the next three or four generations. The sixty-five dollars is kind of immediate. The other figures are for policy wonks and eggheads.

But the senate Republicans have the answer, with this - "Most American taxpayers would get $100 rebate checks to offset the pain of higher pump prices for gasoline, under an amendment Senate Republicans hope to bring to a vote Thursday... 'Our plan would give taxpayers a hundred dollar gas tax holiday rebate check to help ease the pain that they're feeling at the pump,' Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced Thursday."

Right. In another two weeks that's about one tank of gas.

Note this from Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly -
It's bad economics, bad policy, bad optics, and the palpable stink of election-year desperation all rolled into one fetid package. But at least it's means tested!

Frist said the rebates would go to single taxpayers making less than $125,000 per year, and couples making less than $150,000.

Whew. For a minute there I thought they were just being frivolous about this. But as long as Bill Gates doesn't get a rebate check, sign me up.
Yeah, right. Drum can be sarcastic if he wishes, but it is an attempt to recapture the narrative, and a pretty good one. A check in the mail is something you can cash, It's real, not this two trillion dollars for the war, or the forty grand every man woman and child will carry as their share of the national debt for the next three or four generations. You can take it to the bank. It's not abstract. And it "feels" good.

Just don't think about the more than three years of war taking all that Iraqi crude off the market, creating scarcity in a time of high demand here and new demand from China and India, driving prices up. Economists think about those kinds of things, as do Democrats. Ordinary folks think of the check in the mail buying one more tank of gas.

And Thursday, April 27, brought another tussle for control of the national narrative with this -
Hurricane Katrina turned FEMA into a "symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy" so far beyond repair that it should be scrapped, senators said Thursday. They called for creation of a new disaster relief agency as the next storm season looms on the horizon.

The push to replace the beleaguered agency was the top recommendation of a hefty Senate inquiry that concluded that top officials from New Orleans to Washington failed to adequately prepare for and respond to the deadly storm, despite weather forecasts predicting its path through the Gulf Coast.
Well, symbols matter, and no one likes a "symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy."

Drum again here - "This is truly remarkable. FEMA was a fine organization for eight years under Bill Clinton, widely recognized as one of the best run agencies in the federal government. But after a mere five years of George Bush's stewardship there's now a bipartisan consensus that it's so rundown that the only choice is to get rid of it and build a completely new agency in its place. Astonishing."

Well, maybe so, but it fits the narrative as Avedon Carol notes here - "So first you wreck the program, then you claim its failures are the result of the fact that 'government programs don't work' - relying on amnesia about the fact that it worked just fine before they started 'fixing' it - and then they decide we need to abolish it rather than putting it back the way it was when it used to work."

It is part of the Reagan narrative - government is bad, and there should be less of it, and private for-profit enterprise is good, and there should be more of that. Carol's long rant, from which that one snippet is quoted, notes the same thing happened with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and so many other government functions. Wreck them and then point to the wreckage as proof that government is not the answer to anything. It's a pretty neat trick. And it advances the Reagan narrative. Very clever.

And there's the other narrative that's getting a lot of play these days. That would be the "man of the people" narrative - some public figures are just "straight shooters" and flat-out authentic.

This had been built up around George Bush, the plain-spoken uncomplicated cowboy-type who likes to clear brush on his Texas ranch, even if he was born in Connecticut, went to Yale, got his Harvard MBA, and the ranch dates from 1999 when he bought the spread from a pig farmer just before the first election. Yeah, he did spend lots of years in Texas in his twenties and thirties, so he must really be an authentic Texan.

John McCain is another riding the same wave, the narrative that has him as a "straight shooter" war hero, even if what he shoots is often inconsistent and muddled. He was a hero, no question about that, given all those years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, so when he says something pandering or befuddling, it must be us. It's the power of the narrative. The narrative trumps logic and facts.

The third example of a rider on the same wave came up in the New Republic profile of Senator George Allen of Virginia, who may very well be the Republican candidate for president in the 2008 elections. This profile, released Thursday, April 27, but from the May 8 issue of the magazine, by Ryan Lizza, is here, but you have to be a paying subscriber to read beyond the first paragraph that opens with this - "Senator George Allen is the only person in Virginia who wears cowboy boots."

Ah, another Texan, except he grew up out here in Palos Verdes Estates while his father was with the Los Angeles Rams, and his mother is French -
In Palos Verdes, an exclusive cliffside community, he lived in a palatial home with sweeping views of downtown Los Angeles and the Santa Monica basin. It had handmade Italian tiles and staircases that his eccentric mother, Etty, designed to match those in the Louvre. "It looks like a French château," says Linda Hurt Germany, a high school classmate.

... While there, [Allen] became obsessed with the supposed authenticity of rural life - or at least what he imagined it to be from episodes of "Hee Haw," his favorite TV show, or family vacations in Mexico, where he rode horses. Perhaps because of his peripatetic childhood, the South's deeply rooted culture attracted him.

... Whatever it was, Allen got his first pair of those now-iconic cowboy boots from one of his father's players on the Rams who received them as a promotional freebie. He also learned to dip from his dad's players. At school, he started to wear an Australian bush hat, complete with a dangling chin strap and the left brim snapped up. He wore the hat for a yearbook photo of the falconry club. His favorite record was Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison.
And we learn about lots of things - his red mustang he drove to the local high school with its confederate license plate on the front, the white-supremacist racial pranks, the senior photo where he wear a confederate flag pin, the confederate flags in his office now, and the little noose hanging in a potted plant there, reminding everyone he was one of the ones who voted against the senate statement apologizing for all the blacks who had been lynched in the south form the end of the Civil War to the late forties. Charming. He's a good ol' boy, from Palos Verdes. His friends and classmates found him creepy, and not very bright.

And now, in Virginia? Try this, from a recent political rally -
As the scrum breaks up, Allen turns away and spits a long brown streak of saliva into the dirt, just missing one of his constituents, a carefully put-together, blonde, ponytailed woman approaching the senator for an autograph. She stops in her tracks and stares with disgust at the bubbly tobacco juice that almost landed on her feet. Without missing a beat, Allen's communications director, John Reid, reassures her: "That's just authenticity!" It's a word they use a lot it the Allen world - "authenticity."
And there you have it. The rich red-neck wannabe from one of the most exclusive communities in La-La Land struts his stuff.

What does an actual Southerner say? Ed Kilgore here -
As a native southerner, I find this weird and a bit troubling. Personally, I have all sorts of issues with the Confederate Flag and the whole self-destructive cult of the Lost Cause. But I do understand its appeal to people who have grown up saturated in southern culture; I may sometimes consider them SOBs, but they are my SOBs. The idea of young, incredibly privileged, golden-boy-quarterback George Allen of California choosing to embrace southern shibboleths at the precise moment, in the late 1960s, when they were most associated with atavistic racial attitudes, bothers me a lot.
No Texans say that of Bush.

Other views? Ezra Klein here -
Potentially worse, Allen comes off as a garden variety of sadist, a high school bully and vandal who hurled his brother through a glass door when he wanted to stay up past his bedtime, cracked another brother's collarbone for the same offense, and so tormented his youngest sister that she wrote a memoir packed with instances of his cruelty and thuggishness. It's grotesque stuff, and considering the perpetrator is being seriously considered as the chief executive and primary symbol of our country, Lizza's article is a definite must-read.
But to read it you need a subscription, until May when you can read the hard copy. On the other hand there are big chucks of excerpts here, where Digby at Hullabaloo fills in the details.

And he adds this -
George W. Bush has proven that being a phony southerner is better than not being a southerner at all. Indeed, a phony southerner can be better than a real one as long as they put their whole heart and soul into it as George W. Bush and George Allen do. It shows respect.

Presumably a guy like Allen (who during his teen-age years in Southern California had a confederate flag on his mustang and wore a rebel flag pin in his graduation picture) is a man who has lived his bona fides even better than the Yale fratboy, Junior Bush. Nobody can assail his good ole boy pretensions. Allen truly loves southern culture even if he has no blood ties to the south and his mother is (gasp!) French.

If winning the presidency in the country really rests on relative good ol' boy-ness, then it's hard to see how anyone can beat Allen. Aside from his total immersion in southern culture, the article is full of examples of his youthful (and not so youthful) racism and I can only assume that this will help him when he goes up against John McCain in the south. The racist voters of the GOP will catch all his winks and nods with no problem.

The only question is whether the big money boys will get behind him. He is, after all, even dumber than George W. Bush and they may be having some second thoughts about running another empty suit:

... although Allen is undoubtedly the hot new thing within the Beltway's conservative establishment, some denizens of K Street and right-wing newsrooms have begun doubting whether he represents their best hope to snuff out the burgeoning campaign of their enemy, McCain. "If my choice is, 'Who do I want to go out with to a fun dinner to drink our brains out,'" says one of the party's top fund-raisers who has met with Allen many times, "there's no question, it'd be Allen. He's a guy's guy, but he didn't blow me away in terms of substance."

It's hard to believe that they can't find a southern Republican who isn't a sadistic idiot to run for president, but I'm beginning to think that's the real problem. Guys like Bush and Allen are the best they can do. Clearly, all the smart southerners are Democrats.
Well, actually, the problem may be the press, as Kevin Drum notes here -
The press corps is a sucker for "authenticity," and it's something that both George Bush and John McCain have cleverly exploited - because for most reporters, speaking in complete sentences or having smart ideas about policy are way less important than being a "straight talker" or "comfortable in your own skin." But just as McCain's embrace of Jerry Falwell has shown him to be a wee bit less of a straight talker than his handlers claim, Allen's "authenticity" also turns out to be barely skin-deep.

... Allen may reasonably claim that what he did as a teenager four decades ago shouldn't be held against him now. But the consistent evidence in Lizza's piece that his red state good 'ol boy shtick is little more than a personal invention, carefully cultivated and maintained through the years, should at least give the press corps pause as they cover his campaign. They've gotten suckered by this act before, and both McCain and Allen are currently gearing up to sucker them again with the same song in a different key. Caveat emptor should be their watch phrase this time around.
But it won't be. It's the power of the narrative. The narrative trumps logic and facts, and boosts circulation and market share, and that's your advertising revenue.

The Democrats who wish to stop this madness really don't need any more facts. They don't need them. No one cares. They need a counter-narrative.

Posted by Alan at 22:18 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006 07:07 PDT home

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