“Narrative” is one of those buzz words that bounces around the Progressive blogosphere. It is usually uttered wishfully as in, “Progressives need to develop a coherent narrative on (fill in the blank).” Tragically, the wish for a narrative rarely produces one as Progressives continue to play fallback in the face of a strong and powerful narrative from the Right, which is why you rarely hear the Right speaking of the need for a narrative.
“Narrative” is word that signifies nothing. Rather, it is the product of a causal fallacy, i.e. the assumption that a “narrative” can shape or change reality. Ira Chernus in a thought-provoking article on Progressive Patriotism argues that, “[I]t is entirely possible to transform the meaning of patriotism in just about any way we like.” Here, Chernus bumps into the flaw that has hobbled Progressives since they turned their backs on the working class in the sixties: that all we need do to change a narrative is to change its language and the world will fall into step behind it. This line of thought assumes that culture is a machine, a static noun, and all we need do is change a battery or tighten a screw and it will dance to our tune. The truth is that culture is an ever changing verb that is constantly shifting beneath our feet even as we dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” in our carefully crafted narratives. It is this very fetish with top-down narratives that gave rise to the politically correct language that is anathema to the working class.
Chernus argues for a patriotic Progressive narrative grounded in empathy. Empathy is an empty abstraction whose soft vowels and consonants dull the senses while its meaning remains vague. What we should be striving for is a “decent” society. Here is a word that has a bite to it. The word implies not only the building of a decent society, but the treating of all segments of society with decency, regardless of our feelings towards them. Don’t forget that five simple words, “Have you no decency, sir?” brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The word empathy has the same problem as does “Christian love.” Both words have a touchy-feely quality that evokes images of a maiden clad in a diaphanous white gown skipping through La-Lad Land with a beatific smile on her face. In truth, both require a descent into the deepest pit of Hell coupled with a willingness to love every low-life son of a bitch one finds down there even though one’s knee-jerk reaction is to tear their freaking throats out. Both empathy and Christian love are mindsets, which is why people rarely understand their meaning, and that is what makes them problematic as rallying cries.
Also, to create this Progressive patriotic narrative would be to impose another top-down ideology that would be likely to fall on deaf ears. The success of the Left in Latin America is due to their ability to tap into an indigenous populism. Progressives could learn much from the Tea Party when it comes to welding an indigenous populism to an ideology instead of attacking it, which only increases its appeal. The success of the Right is that instead of obsessing on top-down narratives, it has tapped into the fears and frustrations of the working class to create a bottom-up narrative that is highly effective. Speaking of the Left, Jean Baudrillard argues that, “[B]y investing in the moral order, it [the Left] can only watch the repressed political energy crystallize elsewhere and against it. And the Left can only feed evil by embodying the reign of virtue, which is also the greatest hypocrisy.”
What is repressed in Progressive narratives is political passion, and the bottom line is that politics demands passion. Without this passion politics becomes so much political pablum that induces apathy instead of action. Progressives will never mount a successful movement until their every utterance sends the Rightwing noise machine into spasms of apoplectic rage.
There is a rallying cry that would resonate with the electorate, and that would be a loud and passionate argument that three running sores are befouling Liberty’s face—Wall Street, the Beltway and the Pentagon, and that by the Pentagon we don’t mean the troops who are doing the heavy lifting, but the policy wonks and generals who have put them in harm’s way by sending them out to fight unnecessary wars. And we must fight to staunch those sores and to return to the one value all Americans both share and strive for, an unblemished liberty.
The Right has been able to conflate liberty and security in the mistaken belief that liberty is only possible in an atmosphere completely devoid of danger and risk. The truth is that security is only achieved when liberty is sacrificed on security’s altar. Liberty requires courage, the willingness to accept that life involves an element of risk and that security is only possible within the precincts of a police state that would turn America into a gated community. Anyone willing to surrender their liberty to be protected from the “terrorists” would do well to don a flame retardant suit and a crash helmet before getting behind the wheel because the probability of being wacked in an automobile accident is far greater than being wacked in a terrorist attack.
A decent society is grounded on four moral absolutes; do not kill; do not steal; do not lie and do not exploit. Obviously, corporatism and decency are mutually exclusive. For what is fouling democracy’s waters in the twenty-first century is not capitalism but corporatism. Capitalism was a product of owners who exploited their workers. Capitalism has morphed into a corporatism in which employees who think they are owners exploit the workers. Capitalist owners walked the factory floor; corporatist employees are sequestered in glass towers which makes it easier for them to ramp up their exploitation of their workers.
Our wars are corporate wars, waged to expand markets and secure natural resources. Corporatism’s attempt to equate itself with freedom is bogus. It offers freedom only to those at the apex of the pyramid, a freedom that is bought at the expense of the pyramid’s base. This is the peg upon which Progressives could hang liberty’s lantern. We must be willing to demonize corporatism , especially the finance corporatism that has raped pension funds, turned people out of their homes and shipped jobs overseas.
Such demonizing requires passion. We’ve got to be pissed off and we’ve got to be willing to piss the public off. We must be willing to listen to the impassioned member of the Tea Party and to respond to their fears and frustrations and to construct not a platform out of them but a raging bond fire. This does not mean we join forces with the Tea Party. Rather, this means we steal their thunder with an even louder rallying cry that would tap into the indigenous populism that is part of the American tradition. And we won’t do this by trying to create bland, reasonable narrative. It’s time to start handing out pitchforks and torches.