The Benefit of Narrative: Politics is Local

When we read, hear or view narrative fiction, we do so for a similar personal benefit, whether we’re viewing Masterpiece Theater, Alien (n), Yojimbo, Hercules Poirot, Pather Panchali, Catcher In The Rye, Star Wars etc.  It’s the same kind of benefit that anyone has ever received from narrative. What is that personal benefit?

In the middle of the 20th century, sociologists were trying to understand how ordinary, God fearing citizens of a civilized nation (Germany) could bring themselves to do their part in the holocaust and the horror that came to be called, World War II. So psychologists and sociologists at academic institutions conducted studies with students and they reached the conclusion that most people in Europe and America were deriving their principles from media. The how and why of this conclusion was the subject of a book, The Lonely Crowd; A Study of the Changing American Character (1950) and for many years, it was perennially on the New York Times list of best-selling books. It had its critics but ideas expressed in it caught the attention of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, political campaign strategists, the military industry and media companies.

What does it mean that we adapt our principles from media? Simply  that we learn what our peers approve from the media. If we fear and at the same time desire both acceptance and aloneness, when we identify with virtual peers in narratives, we are emotionally sensitive. Long before radio, television and cinema, though most people learned core values in their homes, from traditions but we inherit the logic of narratives and now, with streaming video, tradition plays a very small role in the values adopted by children. While academics study the development of these forms of media as an evolution of technology and craft, schools of film and television have no interest in promulgating core values of the culture. We can evaluate media by cultural results. We should do a national survey. How are things for you?  Really! Are they better or are they worse than they were 10, 20 years ago?

Entrepreneurs use media to create consumer needs they can feel powerful about filling. Sex sells. Fictional narrative promulgates the priority of  values. An emotion in response to diamonds could be created and the Anglo American diamond cartel locked up supply..  Planting emotional needs in the culture is like fruit ripening on the tree only the forest is a human culture. (You can see them from space.) God is dead and with God went The American Dream, and lo, though it is seen in advertisements for cigarettes, home mortgages, automobiles, bank accounts, military recruitment, household appliances, liquor and so on, for these are born of values reflected in the eyes of actors and motivations of characters in all genres of streaming video. Regrettably, popular uprisings curtailed depiction of graphic sex, drugs, orgasms and cigarettes, though very real in the context of the dream, not germane to manipulation of values.

David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd, published a second book of essays, Individualism Reconsidered & Other Essays (1954), in which he looked at the U.S. culture that had developed from these values. He wrote, ”What is feared as failure in American society is, above all, aloneness. And aloneness is terrifying because it means there is no one, no group, no approved cause, to submit to.’’ This statement parallels conclusions of psychologist Erich Fromm about the rise of Nazism in his book, Escape From Freedom (1941). And, like Fromm, Riesman  saw a need to encourage ”the nerve to be oneself when that self is not approved of by the dominant ethic of a society.” He doesn’t offer advice on this, should you decide to go that way.

Tobacco, liquor, sex, gasoline are inexorably taxed but Walmart , Target, Home Depot and such have advertising budgets that  promote consumer ethics.  The counter-culture’s job is to repudiate such values. The value is thus defined by the repudiation. Counter-culture is typically associated with hippies, drug culture and left wing politics, however, core values appealed to in advertisements and modeled in narrative fiction reveals a worshipful attitude toward material goods, consumerism and capitalism and a sardonic view of traditional religious affiliation. Repudiation of these values would be communal ownership; emphasis on sex and God.

We hear sometimes about  the Hollywood Black List, which began in 1947 resulted from the fear of infiltration of our media industry by a 5th column of foreign ideologues. In actually the purge was  of people with ideas that questioned the consumerism. The purge was effective for the same reason that a  proscription continues against media that undermines consumerism, which is, that reasons still exist why it’s better to be rich than to be poor. As long as people have hope that they will get their piece of the dream, any ideology that purports to level the playing field will fail. It is for this reason that, in terms of real change in the politics of social justice and economic equivalence, very little can be done at the level of national government and the only venue susceptible to significant action is at the level of local government.

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