Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Stories Our Leaders Tell Us Matter

"The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to 'expect' stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

"Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and 'news stories' that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. ... the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables."

In "What Happened to Obama's Passion?" an opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" continues, setting the stage of Obama's inauguration in the midst of an economy spinning downward, a month in which three-quarters of a million people had lost their jobs. Westen offers a story that President Obama could have shared with the American people on his inauguration into office. One that would show he understood the suffering of the majority of the population, one that said "he understood what they were feeling, and that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. ... A story isn't a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. ...

"And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it."

Westen continues to tell the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that when Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, "he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy."

Yet, instead of looking deeply at that history, Obama "chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it."

Westen describes Obama's half-stimulus package, and that, to the average American, "who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, stick."

I connect so deeply to this idea of story-telling, that we need to reclaim our narrative as a nation. Read the entire (beautifully written) piece here.

(Image from NYT)

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