Unreliable Narration in Politics

As Wild Bill and I have been re-interpreting Orwell’s classic essay (“P and the EL”) from a 21st century point of view and investigating what we call “the pseudoracy,” we have, from time to time, looked at metaphors: Orwell’s infamous “dead metaphors,” the metaphors of politics, and the metaphors favored by the media.

Metaphors are, essentially, a province of imaginative writing, even though other provinces of society exploit. For no particular reason besides vividness, I think of the TV commercial Reagan’s folk produced: “the bear in the woods.” The bear = Russia. A metaphor.

Until today, however, I hadn’t fully considered another province of imaginative writing from a political angle: narration. A colleague–she teaches German, as it happens–said to me in the parking lot, “It’s not that I think Romney is a liar; it’s that I have no way of judging whether he’s a liar because there is no stable narrative.”

You will pardon, I hope, the academic phrase “no stable narrative.” Rephrase it this way: Romney never gets his story straight, and, more important, never feels compelled to do so.

In other words, on what issue has Romney NOT changed his “tune,” no matter what, and no matter when? The campaign operates as if no one is keeping track.

I hasten, once again, to add that all politicians lie. Nonetheless, the Romney campaign may be cut above–or below.

I also hasten to add that, in literary criticism, the notion of an “unreliable narrator” in literature has been around for quite sometime. Another version of it is “dramatic irony.” For example, a character on stage may think he is telling one thing when we know he’s telling us quite another. For another example, consider Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” We the readers know he is mad and therefore “unreliable.” We “see through” his story to the “real” story.”

Romney and Poe aside, I find the question of narrative and politics fascinating. Looking back amateurishly, I think of campaigns that created a narrative and stuck to it. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Kennedy’s youthful, gee-whiz, and chic “New Frontier.” LBJ’s “Great Society.” Carter’s almost-pious turn from the Nixonian years of dishonesty. Reagan’s turn–back–to some good old days. Obama’s turn to “change.” And so on. –A “stable narrative” deployed, that is, independently of Party.

But Romney? I think the narrative has indeed shifted every week, if not every day. It’s remarkable. I don’t quite yet know what to make of it, but “it,” I think, is new. It is not a dead or cliche narrative; it is a narrative scribbled on water. It may speak to the extent to which many people would vote for anyone over Obama. It may also speak to the unbounded cynicism of the pseudocracy, in which (for example) John Kerry must defend his war-record (noe that he has one), and George W. Bush does not (his was not just absent but suspect). The tactic was the wreckage of narrative.

It–the unstable narrative– may also speak to an almost instantaneous amnesia on the part of the public.

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