Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy: Political Party or, Well, Just a Party?

May the best narrative win.

Looking around in the golden glow of the wall sconces at the Roebling Tea Room, I found Anthea and Vanessa at the bar talking about Occupy. Anthea, in for a short stay from the UK, and Vanessa, from Venezuela, were recounting a conversation with a protester from earlier in the evening.

Still damp from a fine and chilly mist blowing around in the November evening, I just wanted a little whiskey in a glass. But I was all ears.

“She was young, yes, but so very eloquent,” said Vanessa. “These people have no agenda but to say 'there is a problem.'”
“But is that enough?” asked Anthea. “When I asked her what they wanted, she couldn't answer. What kind of protest movement has no goal?”
Vanessa thought for a moment. “I don't think there is a goal in the traditional sense. They just want to be heard. They have reasonable complaints, I think. Companies have too much power.”
Anthea smiled. “I just don't think I understand exactly what they want. What would it take for the protestors to say they achieved something?"

It's a good question. What is happening down there at those Occupy protests? I contend that how you answer that question says more about where you get your Narrative than it does about what is actually happening.

Narrative: A Working Definition
We are not Fact or Data Driven. We are Narrative Driven.

Here's how it works: something happens. People talk about what happened. People who weren't at the event must rely on how other people talk about the event. Different versions of the event are passed around. One or two versions rise to the top and become the “Narrative.”

The Narrative need not be fact-based or fair. These are incidental. It merely needs to be believed. It's often shocking, scary, sexy, or funny and almost always has a spin or slant to it.  When the event is political in any way, like Occupy, there are often at least two competing Narratives battling for your support.

It's American Idol for Stories.  It doesn't matter who can sing better.  It only matters if we like the singer.

Occupy: Waterloo or Bonnaroo
As far as I can tell, the Narratives told by supporters of the Occupy protestors include:
1. The 99% of America wants the 1% to pay more. These percentages refer to the proportional amount of total US wealth that individual people have.
2. Wall Street and Washington are corrupt, filled with criminals who use power and influence to “game” the system to unfairly and unethically amass wealth.
3. American democracy is broken and until drastic changes are made in how people are allowed to participate in politics, the US will continue to decay.
4. College debt is burying young people; education should be a right, not a burden.

Those who are critical of Occupy largely seem to think that there is NO legitimate protest at Occupy-- the only story is about the protestors themselves:
1. The protestors are anarchists and communists, interested in destroying order in America.
2. Most people involved in the movement are drug users, criminals, or opportunists who want a free lunch and state-supported unemployment.
3. Many protestors are college kids out to get wasted and bang on drums.
4. A significant number of protestors are hypocrites: wealthy kids who are “slumming” with the unemployed for the sake of adventure or to collect great stories.

There Is No "Truth," Only Narrative
In this, I see a larger view of all conversation about politics in our country.  The battle lines of politics are not idealogical; they are anecdotal.  Most people form opinions about the President, Congress, candidates, political parties based on the dominant stories in the media.  Because people tend to get their media stories from one side of the political spectrum, we are in a constant state of story battle.

Subsequently, the strongest Narratives are the ones that transcend media lines:  killing Osama was great for America, Congress sucks, unemployment is too high. When the Narrative differs across different media, the story gets less strong.  Is Obama a failure?  Are taxes too high?  Is there too much regulation? Your answer is merely an extension of the Narrative that you believe. 

Which story will solidify the Occupy Narrative?  Will it be rich, hypocritical protestors staying at the W hotel?  Filthy, violent communists raping naive coeds and pooping on cars?  Evil Corporations swinging sweetheart deals with politicians?  How about the police brutalizing protestors?  Maybe it'll be well-intentioned emergency officials getting attacked by crazed protestors.  Perhaps it'll be bailed-out Wall Street execs awarding themselves huge, end-of-year bonuses while unemployment numbers creep higher.

Which brings us back to the charming Vanessa and Anthea, two foreign nationals with the perfect amount of objectivity. Their conversation, on a stormy night in late autumn, affords a telling glimpse of American culture.  They don't know what Occupy is because there is no dominant Narrative. The competition over the successful Narrative is still in full swing.

Which Narrative will win your vote?

1 comment:

  1. Read this review and you'll see that there is an answer to your question, but the answer is irrational, non-objective, and subject to the last experience we have of an event.
    So much for empirical, logical, enlightened thinking. Doesn't exist; never has. Bring on Fox teeve. The masses will defeat us if we let them. They will Occupy Your Mind if you let them. Oy vey!