2016-06-29

The Failure Of Modern Narrative

Here's a letter from the past, from four years ago to be exact, which means it was also an election year.

The challenge for me, two sentences into this blog post, is to choose the right excerpt from the above link. I need something that introduces the topic I want to write about, something that showcases the parallel between now and then beyond "it's an election year." But if I give the whole game away in the second paragraph, I'm going lose my audience, since I intend to challenge their beliefs. I don't want to lose you until I've challenged you.

Since this is a quasi-libertarian blog, I'll start with the passage that is most relevant to that group. Bold highlights are mine.
This is why blaming the dummy is pseudo-libertarianism. It seems that we don't want any restrictions on our freedom, we want to be free to do things even if they are harmful; but that freedom is always predicated on "some other omnipotent entity"'s supervision. We want our freedom to eat unhealthily as long as it is "USDA Grade A" meat from a "Board Of Health" restaurant, cooked not by Mexican illegals with no training in handwashing but by chefs-- sorry, not precise enough: "...cooked by Mexican illegals as long as they are called chefs." We want things to be as regulated as possible with two absolute conditions: 1. there must be symbols of the omnipotent entity's existence showing we are being cared for, like a Grade A seal or the absence of the 13th floor or the word "chefs"; 2. the implementation of the power must be invisible so we can disavow it. And at the very last step of a carefully managed outcome we can bask in the freedom of our pretend choice. In other words, the fact that we are allowed to choose something dangerous must mean that it isn't really that dangerous, which is more accurately but confusingly translated: the fact that we are allowed to choose something dangerous causes it to be safe. And thank God. "There is no God." Oh, that explains all the passive voice.
Think about that for a moment.

Not The Reality - The Connotations Of The Words

The post I've linked to and cited is about that old news story - remember the one? - about the guy who died of a heart attack after eating at The Heart Attack Grill. The Last Psychiatrist wanted to make the point that the name of the restaurant is not ironic, i.e. that if you eat there you really might have a heart attack, and that our nascent belief that the restaurant's branding was "ironic" was a defense mechanism deployed by us to justify our eating there.

Get it? If the restaurant's name is ironic, then that means the food isn't really unhealthy. It would only be unhealthy (says our subconscious) if the name were unironic. But it's not, right? Wrong: the name really is unironic, and the guy who had a heart attack proves it.

Aw, phooey, he says it so much better than I do (but again, bold emphases are mine):
"Hey dummy, what did you expect would happen if you ate at the Heart Attack Grill?" 
Why did you expect it? 
... 
Take an alternative headline and meditate: "Man Has Heart Attack At Hooters." Hooters food is poison but there the implication is that the waitresses' boobs were to blame. But the Heart Attack Grill has equally sexy waitresses and no one blames their boobs. 
So the expectation is exclusively the result of the names "Hooters" or "Heart Attack" and the connotations they carry. Not the reality-- the connotations of the words. But connotation is the purpose of branding. So "hey dummy, how could you go to the Heart Attack Grill and not know you'd have a heart attack?" reveals our secret hope about branding: that it is true, that it has power to affect reality.
Here's a quick re-cap of what I've written so far, before I move on:
  1. It's an election year.
  2. I'm going to challenge your beliefs.
  3. We only seem to want freedom if that freedom is predicated on the supervision of an omnipotent entity.
  4. Expectation "is exclusively the result of the names... and the connotations they carry. Not the reality - the connotations of the words."
  5. Connotation is the purpose of branding.

That's My Brand!

Not long ago, a professional photographer friend of mine shared some photos he'd taken at a recent Trump rally. More accurately, he took the photos outside the rally, where there were apparently two groups of protesters, representing the "pro-Trump" and "anti-Trump" "sides." The two groups had clashed outside the rally, and some of them had come to blows. One Trump supporter had reportedly called an African-American anti-Trump protester a "slave," and there were white supremacists in the crowd that day, making Nazi salutes and otherwise carrying on.

I thought back to those photographs this morning, when I happened to spot an African-American woman in a car, sporting a "Hot chicks vote Trump" bumper sticker.

Your reaction to the existence of that woman tells me something about your preferred set of branding.

I don't watch the news; I own a TV, but it only functions as a Netflix machine. So I don't have any exposure to the daily campaign rhetoric, i.e. the connotations of the words, the branding. I only know that it's Trump versus Hillary, and that their stances on the issues appear to be quite similar. Absent any other context, had I seen an African-American woman showing support for a political candidate whose positions were roughly similar to those of Hillary Clinton, I wouldn't have batted an eye.

But to those who see the President Donald Trump Brand as being little more than crass, racist populism, the idea that a black woman in the South would support such a man defies their sense of reason. That's because branding is more important to the anyone-but-Trump crowd than it is to people like me. And when I say "branding," I mean "the connotations of the words. Not the reality."
I think the key to understanding the success of someone like Donald Trump is to set aside the connotations of words for a minute and marvel at the salesmanship: Donald Trump has managed to sell large groups of crass, populist xenomists who only ever vote Republican on a set of policies that reflect the Democratic party platform. Hillary only wishes she had that much cross-over appeal!

Think about it.

I Did It In Self-Defense

Recently, I was trying to explain that our social narratives have failed to explain the bad behavior we witness in the world. Part of the reason is because our narratives - especially our political narratives - are, essentially defense mechanisms. They are designed to prevent the mental work of change.

While I'm on that, here's another excerpt from that four-year-old Heart Attack Grill blog post:
The purpose of defense mechanisms is to stop you from changing. So that after the trauma or the break-up or the loss you are still you. More sad/ashamed/impotent/enraged/depressed is fine as long as you're the same guy.

This is what makes treating narcissism particularly difficult: the pathology's Number 1 characteristic is identity preservation. "I want to change." Nope. You want to be happier, sure, more successful, feel love, drink less, but you want to remain you. But that won't work. The identity you've chosen blows, ask anyone. Change is only possible when you say, "I want to stop making everyone cry." The first step isn't admitting you have a problem but identifying precisely how you are a problem for other people. But I'll save you the trouble, you'll fail at this, too, because of the Number 2 characteristic of narcissism: inability to see things from the other's perspective. "This isn't really therapeutic, jerk. You call yourself a psychiatrist?" Mother's Day is Sunday, get her anything? I know, I know, she's a jerk, too.

You're Doing It In Self-Defense, Too

The reason I came back to this old blog post from The Last Psychiatrist four years later is because something doesn't jive with the active political narratives circulating in the press right now. A majority of voters in the United Kingdom elected to leave the European Union, against the advice of all the good, right-thinking people. This, apparently, is a clear parallel to the Donald Trump presidential campaign, they say, and the evidence they have presented thus far is this:

trumps
Get it? The political implications have to be the same because the two guys look the same. Except, that's not an argument, is branding. The reality is unimportant, only the connotation matters.

However, if this is in fact a rainbow ruse - a political narrative qua defense mechanism - then we have to be told both things at the same time. We have to be told that Brexit is crass, racist populism, but that it has a point. So, the explanation that has burst forth like a tidal wave is:
This narrative ought to strike you as being really odd because it means that the ones who insist they are saving you from despotism are the ones most passionately arguing for the strengthening of central authorities. Weird, right? "We have to assume control so that nobody assumes control." How dumb do I have to be to swallow that Orwellian howler? It turns out, not so dumb after all, because a lot of very intelligent people are regurgitating this narrative over and over.

It's equally as self-contradictory when you try to parse it. On the one hand, free trade is the rising tide that lifts all ships; on the other hand, "Leave" voters have been the losers of the globalization process. On the one hand, localized democracy threatens our freedom; on the other hand, the central E.U. authority is the archon of the post-Communist age. On the one hand, these neo-reactionary lunatics popping up around the world are ignorant economic losers; on the other hand, Trump voters are richer and better-educated than average.

Here's The Last Psychiatrist at ibid:
All psychological defenses have a common structure: that two legitimate but contradictory beliefs are held simultaneously, one consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously. That way all possibilities are covered. Change is neutralized.

Not The Reality - The Connotations (Reprise)

So, if you listen to all the right-thinking people, the libertarians, the free-traders, the educated, and so on, society is facing a choice between free-market liberalism on the one hand - represented by the European Union and the Democratic Party - and ignorant Dark Ages anti-trade racism on the other hand - represented mostly by Donald Trump. And, as I've just shown, this is mostly branding - if the reality mattered as much as or more than the connotation, then it would be impossible to frame our choices that way. Our dominant political narrative would evaporate. But the branding is important, or as fellow Sweet Talker Randall put it, "rhetoric matters."
Well, perhaps it does. Maybe I'm wrong about all this. Maybe what's happened is that I've placed too much credence in an anonymous internet psychology blogger who seems to have retired. Maybe eight years of Barack Obama really haven't resulted in the same kind of drone strikes and mass-deportations and surveillance statism that defined the George W. Bush years... it's possible...
But if I'm not wrong, then the question we'd want to ask at this point is, "If this political narrative is insulating us against the hard mental work of change, then what change are we talking about here?" To answer that question, we'd all have to speculate. I'd welcome readers' thoughts on that, because I'm not sure I have a good answer, myself. 
I tend toward contrarianism, so when I read a full onslaught of opinion pieces in every major news publication worldwide, all giving more or less the same opinion, I start to wonder why that's the only message I seem to be getting. (Out of curiosity just now, I checked the headlines in the Opinion section of the Fox News website. I guess there's the other side of the story, but now I have another problem...) When I see firsthand reports of Trumpist racism, and then become a firsthand witness of Trumpist diversity, then I start to think that the dominant narratives aren't really doing their explanatory work. I thirst for a better explanation than what I'm getting, and I'm disappointed that I don't have one.
I do know, however, that Frank Zappa was right when he said "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible." Jeffrey Tucker reminds me that "No bridges have been blown up. Britons can still buy plane tickets. People from abroad can still visit and work."
The world hasn't come to an end, and while our freedom is not guaranteed, I'm not so sure that our political narratives have put a change for the better within our grasp. Maybe it's time for us all to think a little harder about this.