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Posts Tagged ‘narrative’


wiseasserpentsAnybody who visits my Facebook page knows that I tend to lean toward progressive ideals. For those who ask me why (as opposed to those who just tell me I’m unrealistic and walk away), here’s the reason: I tend to lean progressive because, as Stephen Colbert once put it, “…reality has a well-known liberal bias.

For a long time I subscribed to the easy, common canard that “all politicians are dirty,” and that “you can’t get into high office without having made too many compromises to be able to do anything good.” I couched my apathy as a principled stand. Really it was laziness. It took 9/11 to shock me out of that.

Like everybody, I was terrified. But as the days went on I started listening to what people were saying–the anger, the hatred, the racism, and the religious bigotry being expressed in the name of patriotism. And inside me, something woke up. “This is as dangerous as those hijacked planes,” it said. I watched liberties being eroded in the name of national security. I watched politicians posturing about protecting America when what they were actually advocating seemed to be something that would not keep us safer. And that little part of me got a shot of espresso and started yelling.

And then came the 2008 election, and everybody was talking about “narratives.” Which candidate had the better story? John McCain was a war hero and a prisoner of war who had undergone torture for principles he held dear. Sarah Palin was a no-nonsense soccer mom/governer from a part of America that seems remote and unknowable to many of us. She had a special needs son. She had “stood up to Big Oil.” There was talk of her knowing how to shoot and field dress a deer. There was Joe Biden, who had lost his young family years before, who came from a working-class family, and who was prone to speaking his mind at inconvenient moments. And then there was Barack Obama.

Suddenly stories were everywhere. He was born in Hawaii. He was born in Kenya. He was a Muslim. He went to a Christian church. He was a secret addict. He disrespected the flag. He was talking not about the ugliness of politics, but about hope, and about how, if we all worked together, we could change the things that plagued us.

I don’t remember how I first happened across his campaign website. What I do remember is seeing the “fact-checker” tab. I clicked, and a scan of a Hawaiian birth certificate opened up. I think that was the moment I first considered registering to vote. I had found a candidate who not only trusted me with a narrative as his team presented them, but with the documents from which I could write his narrative for myself.

Of course, I realized that a “fact-checker” associated with a campaign website was far from an unbiased source–if nothing else, “facts” obtained that way needed to be verified. So I started digging, and I discovered a whole world of information-verification sites. The ones I returned to time and again were the sites that not only discussed facts and “proved” or “disproved” them, but the sites that showed their work–the ones that linked back to original documents and clips. I started clicking. And clicking. And clicking.

I started listening to political events, news, and commentary with my critic’s ear. I learned to evaluate what I was hearing based on the information I had gleaned. What I found was that, while all politicians occasionally gave out false information, some tended to hew far more closely to facts than others. I could look at the source documents, discover the truth. I could even chart it if I wanted.  It was–and is–possible to distinguish fact from spin.

I ended up voting not for a party, but for the candidate who had changed the way I saw politics–who had challenged me to not just dismiss the whole process, but to do the hard, important work of digging for facts. I voted for him because through following his campaign I had become a better, more informed person.

What I learned in that election was discernment–the skill of listening with an open mind, then seeking out information from a wide variety of sources–and then evaluating that information based on original information. I listened. I researched. And then I wrote my own narrative. I became a more discerning, active citizen. I also became someone with whom many in my family felt acutely uncomfortable.

For reasons that will be obvious to anyone who knows us, Sarah Palin’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “commonsense,” rhetoric was very attractive to many of them. “She’s the real deal,” one sister told me excitedly. I had just finished reading a piece about the time she had spent in Wasilla city government. The piece raised some serious questions about her qualifications for me. “Are you sure?” I asked. My sister was sure. Gun-toting, smart-mouth, “my common sense is as good as your education,” boot-strapping Sarah Palin was “the real deal.”

And then came the interviews, and the news stories, and the revelation that no matter how “real” Ms. Palin might be, and how no matter how good she might be at dog-whistle politics, she was woefully unprepared to run a nation. Perhaps naively, I expected my family’s opinion about her to shift a bit. I was wrong.

And that was when I learned a new and terrifying thing–far too many people had adopted Sarah Palin’s attitude toward basing opinions on verifiable fact. Part of it, of course, was that Sarah Palin was very, very good at whipping up a crowd with a grievance–or who might, after listening to her for a bit, discover that they had a grievance. A whole new party sprang up–the Tea Party, who all too often regarded facts as not just unnecessary, but positively anti-American.

My family and I never really bounced back from that. The lure of believing that we all get what we deserve if we work hard enough for it was too powerful. For me, believing that was impossible not because I was somehow immune to the lure of that belief, but because I had bitten by the research bug. I simply could no longer take political spin at face value. There was simply too much evidence showing that the playing field in America was slanted in favor of the wealthy, white, and male–and had been for a very long time.

My family and I weren’t the only people who faced that conflict. Watching the Kavanaugh hearings and the GOP position on the impeachment provided proof, if any more was needed, that an entire political party seems to have decided that facts are indeed a liberal plot, and that the fewer of them we have to deal with the better off we will all be. Listening to President Trump declare himself “exonerated” when the Mueller report said no such thing was like Sarah Palin declaring herself “exonerated” when the investigation in Alaska regarding her improper use of influence resulted in no such finding.

Both Palin and Trump have had the distinction–if we can call it that–of being credited with Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.” In the past eleven years (2009-2019), the honor has gone to the conservative, often-GOP end of the spectrum nine of eleven times, and to Donald Trump himself three times. We live in a world where demanding facts to back up assertions has come to be seen as a tool of the “liberal elite.” Being wrong about something–even disastrously wrong–has become irrelevant, if not an actual badge of honor. How did we get here? It’s not really hard to see.

There is a faction of America that, when faced with difficult questions, seeks not to dig for answers, but brushes those questions off with, “Well, I guess that’s just where faith comes in.” It’s a belief system that relies heavily on avoiding the responsibility of taking action by talking about “forgiving,” and “not judging,” and “turning the other cheek.”

Those are all real quotes. What’s missing from that philosophy, though, is a whole other set of quotes about the importance of discernment–the responsibility we have to do the hard work of equipping ourselves to make responsible, ethical, informed decisions. In the spirit of finding a starting point, I googled, “What does the Bible say about discernment?” and went to the open-source online Bible for a list of quotes.  Full disclosure here–I don’t believe that reading the Bible literally is always a great guide to behavior, but many people do. If you do, I’m speaking your language here.

The sheer number of quotes is impressive, but this is just a starting point. If you believe in the Bible as a guide to right action, it might be interesting to search out these references as well as those from other indexing sources,  look at each situation’s historical and social contexts, and then devote a little time to examining how discernment factors into your own life.

A bit back I referenced verses about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and accepting things on faith. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of such things. I would only suggest that those things only really have value in the light of discernment. Forgiveness only has meaning if we understand that a wrong has been done. Accepting things on faith only has meaning if we have taken the time to use our big, beautiful brains to push the boundaries of our knowledge to their limits. Discernment means that we never, ever, use forgiveness and love and faith as a substitute for doing the hard, necessary work of seeking out good information from reputable sources–and that we require the people making decisions on our behalf to provide us with the facts and information we need to do that.

We can’t fool Mother Nature. Reality doesn’t care what you believe. The only real question for each of us is, “How can I write the truest narrative?” In the end, the truth is what sets us free.

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