The Politics of Story: Think You Are on the Right Side of History? Think Again.
Throughout history the story of mankind can often be viewed as a struggle between two opposing forces:
the fight for individual freedom against that of a power structure.
This struggle has played out countless times: Moses against the Egyptian Empire...Spartacus against the Roman Empire...T. E. Lawrence against the Ottoman Empire...Mahatma Gandhi against the British Empire...Abraham Lincoln against the American slave system...Susan B. Anthony against the male patriarchy...Oskar Schindler against the Nazis...Martin Luther King, Jr. against Jim Crow racism...Nelson Mandela against apartheid South Africa...Norma Rae Webster against big business union busting...Erin Brockovich against environmental polluters...
On the Big Screen, the same struggle can be found in nearly every story of heroism: Robin Hood against the royal hierarchy...Detective Philip Marlowe against organized crime...To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch against institutional racism...James Bond against international terrorists...Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes against the corrupt Chinatown...Indiana Jones against Nazi fascism...Titanic’s Jack and Rose against English classicism...Braveheart against the British Empire...Superman against super villains...Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon against the Roman Catholic Church...Luke Skywalker against the evil Empire...
These stories, both real and scripted, are essentially the same: a hero (the protagonist) is the force of change within an oppressive power structure (the antagonist).
This is the basis of myths, fairy tales, and folklore. Whether fighting for civil rights, justice, equality, clean water, or the right to vote, to unionize, and to be protected under the law, the antagonist is always the same - the establishment or power structure, often authoritarian – demanding adherence to authority at the expense of personal freedom.
The authoritarian’s power is centered around its vast wealth. It is these resources that allow the establishment to institutionalize its hierarchy and wield considerable power.
This power is used to control people, often in the form of slavery, indentured servitude, or religious indoctrination. It eclipses democracy, has no accountability, and subjugates the powerless. Think of Egyptian Pharaohs, Italian mafias, or Corporate America.
There are two universal human truths that explain this dynamic, regardless of time or place:
Money equals power.
From turn-of-the-century Robber Barons to third-world dictators, from Mexican drug cartels to Chinese dynasties, from Darth Vader’s evil Empire to House Lannister in Game of Thrones.
This moneyed ruling class rules the world, and when their authority is challenged by a young Rebel, gladiator or freedom fighter, they stand to lose control.
Whether the hero succeeds or not, he will be revered long after his story has ended, as heroes lead, inspire, and speak truth to power. They risk their lives for the greater good, even if they don’t live to reap its reward.
These tales are as old as time, their well-worn scripts reenacted at every turning point in history. The story of Moses leading the Jews to freedom is the same as Spartacus leading the slaves to freedom, which is the same as Gandhi leading his people to independence, which is the same as Martin Luther King, Jr. leading blacks into the Civil Rights era.
As often as we’ve watched these struggles play out across our TV screens, it should be obvious which side bends toward history.
Less clear is where our allegiance would lie if the story played out in our own lives, as everyone is the hero from his own point of view. Real villains are never outright evil. They are merely misguided heroes of their own stories, with more conviction than scruples, and more certainty than self-awareness.
The Villain’s character flaw is that he lacks the capacity to question his motives. Not unlike Richard Nixon excusing his Watergate crimes with his own arrogance:
This is what power does to weaker men. It allows them deceive themselves with their own authority. It elevates their convictions into causes that serve only to secure and expand power.
The power structure is nothing if not shrewd. It knows the best way to fight progress is merely to convince a populace there’s no need for it. That’s how the power structure manipulates us lesser beings – by controlling the message.
Why fight change when we can pretend it’s unnecessary? Why fight equality if we can convince our children they already have it? Why engage with our detractors if we can just deny their expertise?
For as long as the powerful indoctrinate slaves to think they are free, there’s no need to revolt. After all, the easiest way to win the war is to believe it’s already been fought.
These deceptive messages allow many of us to sleepwalk through life.
Far too many will never realize our role in serving the power structure. We will never question our indoctrination, or wonder where our belief systems come from. We will never be so self-aware as to see the puppet strings tying us to our masters.
Unknowingly, we preserve the status quo. We reiterate well-crafted talking points like well-trained marionettes, advancing spin-doctored denials, corroborating in corporate corruption, and buying into paid political pandering.
Why is it so easy?
Because of the law of inertia: Human beings are inclined to leave things well enough alone unless pushed by extraordinary circumstances to embrace change. It’s simply easier to accept the misbelief that things do not need changing.
The human mind will go to great lengths to remain in a state of comforting denial. Author Margaret Heffernan refers to this habit as “willful blindness" - denying truths that are too painful or too frightening to confront:
“It’s something we all do…deny uncomfortable truths that cry out for acknowledgment, debate, action, and change. Many, perhaps even most, of the greatest crimes have been committed not in the dark, hidden where no one could see them, but in full view of so many people who simply chose not too look and not to question. Whether in the Catholic Church, the SEC, Nazi Germany, Madoff’s funds, the embers of BP’s refinery, the military in Iraq, or the dog-eat-dog world of sub-prime mortgage lenders, the central challenge posed by each case was not harm that was invisible – but harm that so many preferred to ignore.”
To paraphrase Albert Einstein, Edmund Burke, and JFK: The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.
It is because of our inertia – and our willful blindness – that at some point in our lives, we’ve all been willing participants in aiding the power structure to oppress its weakest members. Explains Heffernan:
“Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the limits of our brain simply won’t let us. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We admit information that makes us feel great, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation, and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia.”
Once we’ve committed to our individual beliefs, we maintain and reinforce them through cognitive heuristics - basically mental short cuts.
“A heuristic is a mental method of solving a problem through intuition," explains scientist historian Michael Shermer. "Sometimes called rules of thumb, they are better known as cognitive biases because they almost always distort to fit preconceived concepts...No matter what belief system is in place – religious, political, economic, or social – these cognitive biases shape how we interpret information that comes through our senses and mold it to fit the way we want the world to be and not necessarily how it really is…I call this general process belief confirmation.”
It’s easy to dismiss truth tellers or whistleblowers who warn about inconvenient truths when we are wired to do just that. Disrupting the status quo means first disrupting our neurobiology.
Thus, it’s easier to deny, to believe the lie, than risk the discomfort of counterintuitive thought. We do this when we choose to believe that everyone is treated equally under the law, that we each enjoy the same freedoms regardless of race, sex, or color.
We do this to protect our sense of security in the world. However, this is a con. It’s a false assumption we come to recognize as “privilege.”
There’s a good reason only women seem to notice sexism, only minorities claim racism, and only blacks demand Black Lives Matter.
Unless we have suffered the same abuse, unless we have experienced such discrimination first-hand, it’s all too easy for us to believe it doesn’t exist.
It’s our willful blindness - and cognitive biases - that make us all responsible for such bigotry. By not taking an active role, by not being vigilant in thought, by succumbing to inertia, we each allow evil to flourish.
“We have all been in denial at some point in our lives," writes science journalist Michael Specter. "Faced with truths too painful to accept, rejection often seems the only way to cope. Under those circumstances, facts, no matter how detailed or irrefutable, rarely make a difference. Denialism is denial writ large – when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”
With the dawn of 2017, the lies have never been more pervasive. It’s never been more difficult to see the truth, as we’ve spent years shielding ourselves from it.
“Once we’ve settled on a core belief, this shapes how we gather information," writes journalist Chris Mooney. "The technical term for this phenomenon is ‘selective exposure’: what it means is that we selectively choose to be exposed to information that affirms our beliefs, and to avoid ‘inconvenient truths’ that challenge our beliefs.”
It is this cognitive predisposition that enables the power structure to thrive, and consequentially, why we allow evil to flourish.
It is why we are more likely to be a P.G.&E. drone towing the company line instead of Erin Brockovich.
It is easier to believe that climate change isn’t a threat to our survival, despite 281 gigatonnes of melting ice per year, 3.4 mm rise in sea levels per year, and nearly 2% rise in temperatures the last century.
It’s easier to fall for the comfortable lies of the power structure – in this case, the 761 billion dollar oil and gas industry, whose business model is threatened by climate science, and thus underwrite bogus front groups to muddy the data and the conversation - The American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, to name just a few.
It is why we are more likely to be another faceless stormtrooper instead of Luke Skywalker.
It’s easier to turn a blind eye when police kill three times more black people than white, even when unarmed, and inconsequential of committing a crime.
It’s easier to ignore there are more black men in prison now then were enslaved before the Civil War, or that poor youth of color are less likely to commit crimes than their white counterparts, or that blacks are more likely to be targeted with unconstitutional stop and frisks, more likely to have higher bail, more likely to serve longer sentences, and more likely to receive the death penalty.
It’s easier to pretend we’re not racist when electing presidents who campaigned on thinly-veiled promises of incarcerating blacks, retaliating after the civil rights movement, and defunding any programs that would help , incorporate them into society. It’s easier to pretend there’s no need for Black Lives Matter, instead of admitting we’ve long decided they don’t.
And it is why in the Christ story we would all be obedient Roman soldiers, or at best, Judas Iscariot.
It’s easier to recall isolated incidents of petty welfare fraud, or abuse of government assistance, yet fail to consider the 1.65 million Americans living off $2 a day, or that roughly 50 million Americans live in poverty, while tens of millions more are in near poverty, or that we have the second highest rate of childhood poverty in the developed world.
It’s easier to assume the poor are lazy, instead of recognizing nearly a third of all workers earn only $15,000 a year in a country where the poverty level is $25,000. It’s easy to assume when 49% of Americans live in a home that receives money from the government that they are moochers rather than proof of just how dysfunctional our economy has become.
It’s easier to pretend the poor don’t bother seeking employment, while ignoring the actual unemployment rate of 11.3%, or that only 44% of U.S. jobs are full-time, or that incomes have now declined so much and poverty grown so great, the rate of death among white men and women between the ages of 45-54 without a college degree has increased since 1999, a reversal after decades of improvement.
No, it’s easier to overgeneralize and disregard an entire segment of the population. It’s easier to allow them to die in squalor on the off chance someone may undeservingly qualify for a meager $300 a month from the government.
When the power structure controls the message, it’s easier to dismiss the poor as unworthy urchins who deserve to be punished for their poverty, which conveniently serves the wealthy very well.
As President Lyndon B. Johnson once said:
"If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
The power structure manipulates the message so that we think the poor deserve their poverty, that all of us are already equal, and that we can deny any scientific evidence as long as there’s any doubt.
It is to the hierarchy’s benefit that these cognitive biases go unchallenged. This is how propaganda is constructed. This is why fake news is created. It’s why myths are promoted.
It’s why we deny reality. It’s why we discredit anyone who threatens to disrupt our willful blindness: Because delusion comforts when truth hurts.
As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and war correspondent Chris Hedges has written:
“Reality is complicated. We are incapable of handling or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by clichés, stereotypes, and inspirational messages... Reality does not make us feel good.”
To wake up and admit we were wrong, to cease our tacit agreement, and to embrace change, means fighting our laziest of human impulses. It means overcoming our default programming in order to evolve.
If we deny climate science today, then decades ago we’d have opposed cancer warnings on cigarettes, seat belts in automobiles, and getting lead out of paint.
How do we know?
Because the same PR firms, front groups, and merchants of doubt fought on behalf of industries unwilling to sacrifice their profits in the name of safety, innovation, and public good.
If we oppose gay marriage today for religious reasons, then we’d have opposed integration, interracial marriage, and civil rights decades ago, and we’d have opposed ending slavery a century ago.
How do we know?
Because in each situation, to protect the hierarchy, the white male patriarchy resorted to the last line of defense, the only tool employed when neither logic, morality, nor the law is on your side – the Bible. A justification for more human atrocities than for human dignities, it is the Church’s attempt to limit personal freedoms in the name of holy tradition.
If we’re Islamaphobic and anti-immigrant today, then we’d have been anti-Semitic years ago, and for McCarthyism and Japanese internment camps decades ago.
How do we know?
Because they are all based in xenophobia – in an irrational fear of foreigners, a dislike of those who are different. Instead of seeing our common humanity, the power structure relies on our bigotry to divide us. All anti-immigration policy is bigotry masquerading as politics.
If we oppose equal pay for women today, then we’d have opposed the feminist movement decades ago, and women’s right to vote a century ago.
How do we know?
Because the argument was always rooted in sexism. The male power structure believes a woman’s place is in the home, that she is inferior to men, and that if she has possession over her own body, she can no longer be controlled.
If we oppose Obamacare today, then we would have opposed The New Deal decades ago as well as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicare.
How do we know?
Because each were initiated to better the lives of the American people, to offer solutions to problems the free market has no financial incentive to provide, and thus threatened the power structure’s fiscal gains.
If we oppose increasing the minimum wage today, then we’d have opposed worker’s comp years ago, workplace safety regulations decades ago, and stopping child labor a century ago.
How do we know?
Because Big Business has always controlled that conversation, declaring each to be “a job killer” that “would stymie economic growth” and “hurt low-skilled workers.” These are lies perpetuated by the power structure to hoard their wealth and retain their outdated production model.
This is what historians mean when they say history repeats itself.
The struggles between change and power are identical, with only the players changing. As historian Nancy Isenberg explains in White Trash: the 400 year Untold Story of Class in America:
“The 1% is the most recently adopted shorthand for ‘moneyed monopoly’, bringing attention to the ills generated by consolidated power. But the phenomenon it describes is not new. Class separation is and has always been at the center of our political debates, despite every attempt to hide social reality with deceptive rhetoric.”
However, while it may appear to be a battle between good and evil, or heroes and villains, it cannot be reduced to such simple terms. This is a fight between freedom and power – and the majority who fight on the side of power have been shrewdly manipulated to serve their masters.
Those who fight for progress always face an uphill battle. Like protagonists on the big screen, truth tellers are compelled to act, despite a world that doesn’t wish to hear, minds primed to reject, and a power structure intent on undermining, discrediting, and deceiving.
Facing the truth is no easy task. It takes strength, openness, and most of all, courage. Sadly, it is easier to side with the truth teller in the dark comforts of a theater, where we don’t have to bear the true cost of reform.
In the real world, none of us want to be the bad guy, yet in order to see the truth, we must have the courage to look beyond our beliefs.
It is our unwillingness – or inability – to surrender our opinions, our articles of faith, our religions and ideologies, that prohibits us from accepting life’s hardest truths. Reality rarely affords such luxury.
Until we muster that courage, we will remain willfully blind, and our reluctance to change will render us forever prisoners of the powerful.
We must challenge ourselves to see political debates through the lens of liberator and oppressor. Who is fighting for fairness, equality, and individual freedoms? Who is fighting to preserve power and institutional tradition?
The single most characteristic behavior of the power structure is its appeal to the worst in our humanity.
When our basest instincts of fear, mistrust, and greed are employed, we must realize we are being manipulated:
When we choose to see the poor as welfare moochers and any program that offers support to the lower class as “wasteful government spending,” the power structure appeals to our selfishness.
When we choose to disrespect or demonize other religions, the power structure appeals to our intolerance.
When we choose to believe LGBT or another marginalized group do not deserve the same rights we enjoy, the power structure appeals to our bigotry.
When our nobler, more heroic leaders act, they appeal to our better natures.
When we choose to see the poor as victims of poverty, and the social safety net as a lifeline, the forces of progress appeal to our compassion and humanity.
When we choose to celebrate our diversity and respect different religions, the forces of progress appeal to our open-mindedness and individualism.
When we choose to fight for equal protection for all marginalized groups, the forces of progress appeal to our sense of fairness and justice.
Consider these issues from the last election:
Did you vote for the candidate who fought for equal protections of minorities? Or the candidate who legitimized white supremacy?
Did you vote for the candidate with a track record of defending the poor and working her way up the professional ladder? Or the candidate born of wealth and privilege who can only identify with the working class through anger and resentment?
Did you vote for the candidate who spoke calmly, sensitively and diplomatically, who employed logic and reason, who backed up claims with data? Or the candidate who spoke scorn into existence, promoted hate speech, and smeared his opponents?
Which really represents Christian values: Helping the poor, or justifying that it's not the government's job? Treating all men equally, or only white men? Respecting each other’s beliefs, or judging them?
Religion is one of the most oft-used justifications for institutionalizing inequality, and it too often goes unquestioned. This is why there is a proven scientific correlation between racism and religion. As Michael Shermer explains:
“Religion and government…both arose about five thousand to seven thousand years ago to meet the needs of social control and political harmony when small bands and tribes of hunter-gatherers, fishermen, and herders coalesced into much larger chiefdoms and state of agriculturalists, craftsmen, and tradesmen. When populations became too large for informal means of social control (such as gossip and shunning), religion and government evolved as social watchdogs and enforcers of the rules…The problem with both institutions is that our moral minds also evolved to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and convince ourselves that we are right and other groups are wrong.”
There has never been a clearer American election divided into teams, representing the forces of freedom and establishment, diversity and intolerance, and hope and hate. Acknowledging this should give pause to anyone who believes in the future of our once-great nation, as fear and hate do not lead to a better world.
These are strategies the power class has used for centuries to divide people and create the economics of inequality. It is they who drive the working class into poverty. It is they who manipulate government policies to redistribute wealth to the 1%. It is they who have bankrupted the country through reneging on their share of taxes. It is they who’ve betrayed rural America by cutting grants and legalizing multinational chains that force small businesses to close. It is they who ravaged the Rust Belt by encouraging outsourcing, downsizing, and mergers and acquisitions. It is they who funnel tax dollars away from programs designed to lift the poor out of poverty and into multi-billion dollar companies through lavish corporate welfare.
It is the moneyed class who abuse the system, destroy the economy, and continue to rule – unchecked, unquestioned, and unanswerable for their crimes, from trickle down economics to the financial crisis of 2008, to war profiteering in Iraq and Afghanistan, to fighting science and education in the name of corporate profits and quarterly earnings.
We cannot see that we are complicit in their con until we step outside of our environment. The smaller our world, the more likely it is to be a microcosm unrepresentative of the world at large.
These differences of size and scale directly correlate to voting behaviors. The less populous the area, the more limited our understanding of the bigger picture, the more narrow our echo chamber, and the less opportunity to experience diversity of mind, body, and culture.
To quote Mark Twain:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness… charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
The more removed we are from metropolitan areas, national conversations and diverse ideas, the more prone we become to manipulation by the power structure. Today, this has segregated the populace to unprecedented levels of city dwellers living in reality-based communities, and rural Americans indoctrinated by partisan media that reinforce local prejudices and fears, and insulate from reason.
The power structure, via political and religious leaders, have ruled the poor through fear since before biblical times: fear of leaving home, fear of flying, fear of exploring the world, fear of the unknown, fear of the unfamiliar, fear of other religions, fear of foreigners, fear of other races, or other gender identities, fear of veering from church doctrine, or political party. It is what keeps most of Middle America and the Deep South from embracing the 21st Century.
This fear is wielded like superstition, and it keeps swaths of the population immobile and incapable of change.
Through fear, power structures manufacture negative feelings to divide us. It’s their means of discrediting anyone who dares speak the truth (Gore, Clinton, Soros, Nader, Chomsky, Paul, etc.). It is only the smear that can fight fact and win. That is why the power structure undercuts credibility of scholars, academics, experts, and intellectuals. This is deliberate manipulation to appeal to our fear of inferiority and exploit our need for validation.
The power structure, or the 1%, through corporations, politicians, think tanks, fake news networks, and figureheads, retains its privilege by focusing middle class resentment onto the lower class. This is when racism is employed. This is Fox news’ mission statement. It is nothing more than a tool of manipulation.
When the hierarchy demands its employees keep track of stolen office supplies, it is only to distract us from their own malfeasance at the top of the pyramid.
Petty crimes by the poor are the result of – and deflection from – greater misconduct at higher levels. Nixon and Reagan both seeded the public with race baiting to distract from the corporate takeover of our government.
This con targets weak minds that lack the vision to conceive the full scope of institutional abuse. The greatest crimes can always be found by looking up rather than looking down.
As philosopher Julien Benda, cultural critic Noam Chomsky, and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges have observed: There are two sets of principles in our world – one of power and privilege, the other of truth and justice.
“If you pursue truth and justice, it will always mean a diminution of power and privilege. If you pursue power and privilege, it will always be at the expense of truth and justice.”
It is truth and justice that the protagonist pursues.
It is power and privilege that the antagonist protects.
These universal truths have stood the test of time. If it’s difficult to determine which is which in modern society, try viewing them through the terms of story:
Is the person keeping a gay couple from marrying the protagonist, or the antagonist?
Is Corporate America’s low wages in order to inflate quarterly earnings a heroic act?
Is deporting undocumented immigrants and separating children from their families noble?
The power structure, generally white, male, straight, and wealthy, refuse to acknowledge anyone else’s struggle, because they have had none themselves. Thus, they are threatened by anyone who challenges their status quo. Regardless of the year, the decade, or the century, the power structure is characterized by its refusal to embrace change.
In story, this is called an antagonist. In real life, it goes by a more common term - a term whom many use without knowing its real definition:
conservative: disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
The protagonist’s growth is characterized by his heroic values and actions. He is:
liberal: advocating progress or reform, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties.
“Of all the varieties of virtues, liberalism is the most beloved,” wrote Aristotle. Liberalism is the foundation for democracy. Liberal is used to describe education and arts - an approach to learning and understanding that allows for complexity and diversity and, most of all, change.
Conservatism retains power by subscribing to, and indoctrinating with, dogma and ideology - both rooted in tradition, with only one purpose: to control.
Regardless of government or religion, ideology limits growth. It encourages willful blindness. Its refusal to change relinquishes its followers to history’s losing sides, from slavery to apartheid, segregation to voter restrictions, from women’s rights to gay rights, from the New Deal to Obamacare, from McCarthyism to Trumpism, from the Dark Ages to World War II.
This is why stories are so necessary for human survival. Stories illustrate these stakes. They move us emotionally in a way facts, data and information cannot. They help us see our own stories from the outside.
Stories are a form of art, and art speaks truth to power. Art reveals our humanity. Without art challenging our beliefs, we will inevitably surrender to the power structure, to a fascist, Orwellian obedience constructed by fear of change.
To quote Plato: “Those who tell the stories rule society.”
We must decide whether to continue embracing false narratives spun by the power structure that feed on fear and rely on our willful blindness, or have the compassion to see truths that speak to our nobler virtues.
Mankind can be primitive, and our brains primeval. Our intellect is measured by our willingness to evolve, like a character arc in a film or novel – the protagonist’s growth is the spine that drives all stories.
Perhaps it’s time we reaffirm our roles.
History tends to side with those who speak truth to power. As it calls for us in the coming days, will we choose to hear it?
And more importantly, will we have the courage to act?
Otherwise, how can we call ourselves good men if we merely look on, and do nothing.
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.