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We Need New Stories

June 18, 2017
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Naomi Klein has an interesting article in the latest issue of the Nation, Daring to Dream in the Age of Trump. I recommend it. Much to appreciate, disagree with, and discuss. I want to focus on two features of it, one I find quite surprising and one that is so typical and so disempowering of the Democratic Left.

Regarding the surprising one, she devotes a short section to self change. The section is titled “Killing the Trump Within.” She is quite tentative in treating this subject, but she does stake out that issue—which is quite unusual to do publicly—and does so personally, which is really rare:

For me—and this may sound a bit strange—Trump’s rise has also prompted a more internal kind of challenge: It has made me determined to kill my inner Trump. We have already seen that the new regime in Washington has led a great many people to try to understand and overcome our own latent biases and prejudices, the ones that have kept us divided in the past. This internal work is crucial as we come together in resistance and transformation.

Although she is quite reluctant and even timid in bring this matter up, she is very clear that the old cliché—we have to become the change we want to bring to the world—is essential to rising to our Trumpian occasion. And she is brave about pushing it to the forefront. Startling stuff for the Nation.

An equally important factor is in how Naomi has trapped herself in a core and quite disempowering story the whole left tends to be trapped in. She tells the story as one who truly believes the story is actually the reality while it can only be one story that can be made up and used. And she tells it well. First, Naomi says we are caught in a trinary:

We can fight the global rise of right-wing demagoguery in two possible ways.

The three characters in this story being the "right-wing demagoguery" and the "two possible ways" to fight it. Next, she gives us the bad option:

There’s the  establishment option embraced by centrist parties the world over, which promises a little more child care, better representation of women and people of color at the top, and maybe a few more solar panels. But this option also comes with the same old austerity logic, the same blind faith in markets, the same equation of endless consumption with happiness, the same Band-Aids on gaping wounds.

Then, with flair, she delivers the good option we are waiting to hear because we know this story so well:

A great many of us are clearly ready for another approach: a captivating “yes” that lays out a plan for tangible improvements in daily life, unafraid of powerful words such as “redistribution” and “reparation,” and intent on challenging Western culture’s equation of a “good life” with ever-escalating creature comforts inside ever-more-isolated consumer cocoons, never mind what the planet can take or what actually leads to our deepest fulfillment.

My comment: stories are essential tools for making sense of reality, but they can only be lenses through which we see reality, partially. So, a story is only a story is only a story. Reality remains something else so much more complex than we can grasp in all ou stories. How much thought is being given to the reflection that “well, maybe this isn’t such a great story.” Maybe there are more useful ones. At least some that are substantial and imaginative enough to make us step back and wonder. After all, this has been the left’s story for 150 years. Maybe it hasn’t worked all that well. Maybe economic and political realities have changed enough to question its relevance to now.

I suggest this is the case. Further: the 'bad/good/rescue' trinaryinary of this standard story blinds us to much and even disempowers us considerably. Here’s another story we might consider:

There is a large cast of characters at play: on the right we have authoritarian populists, establishment “conservatives,” and--surprise!--democratic “conservatives;” on the left we have--again surprise!--authoritarian populists, establishment “liberals,” and democratic “populists;” and in the mixed up center we have folks who are individually a mix of several of the above and probably a lot more.

For the most part, establishment “conservatives” and establishment “liberals” have formed a managerial elite political class, and locked out the rest. They have also become very skilled at telling the other characters what they want to hear.

Now, thanks to Trump-and-Bernie the whole consensus has been blown apart. The different characters are without a coherent story, just blind women in touch with different parts of the whole elephant. And each is in pursuit of others they can now match stories and even ally with.


Now here's the important question: are there other stories out in the audience? I would love to hear them.


I want to thank Michael John Greer (the dude behind the curtain of The Archdruid Report] for an essay that helped so much in clarifying my thinking on the nature of stories, Getting Beyond the Narratives: An Open Letter to the Activist Community.)

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