Sunday, November 11, 2012

Competing Narratives

"Fellows, you can't have it both ways. [I] can't be a wild-eyed kook and a square."                 --- Reagan to liberal critics, c. 1980

Some here in California can remember being radicals in the '60s and collecting signatures to recall (then) Governor Reagan.  I wonder if these are the same people that claim now that Reagan was a liberal.  Four years before then, his national address in defense of Barry Goldwater was quite a speech--something that would largely resonate, I think, with modern conservatives.  12 years after then, the rhetoric would sound rather like (eerily like, if you were a 70s progressive) the 60s Reagan they despised.

But you'd think now that he had endeared himself to them all along with his moderate ways and it is today's conservatives that would be too extreme for Reagan.  Meanwhile, conservatives think that if Reagan hadn't been successful with the problems he inherited, this reinvention of Reagan would never have occurred. (He'd instead have been held up as proof positive that conservative ideas do not work, as they now do with George W. Bush.)  To conservatives, it seems like an Orwellian alteration of history.

Listening to people talk about the days in which they rebelled via 60s political activism, I wonder about the social dynamics that people were swept up in.  The anti-McCarthyist reaction in Hollywood, the Beatnik sneering at traditional values, the people that got used to the quasi-fascist government-directed economy of WWII already desensitized by FDR's valiant and prolonged efforts to stagnate the economy into recovery, etc.  (Would  it be irony that Europe's decimation might have given America the leg up it needed to last up until JFK's more significant tax cuts?)  It all converged in the 60s into the quasi-libertarian statism that now marches Forward.

Even as I draw connections between the various (seemingly unrelated) causes that modern liberalism dutifully embraces, I ponder that most people caught up in such a movement are not necessarily captivated by a clear outlined vision (as some of their ringleaders may well be) let alone aware of any sort of connections between them.  They might be perceived as common-sense positions on largely unrelated matters.  (For example, why would certain environmental attitudes correlate with kneejerk indignation against Israelis?)  I speculate that what makes positions on these matters correlate for liberals and conservatives (though admittedly there are always people that deviate from these correlations) is that it comes down to competing narratives.  Each narrative is informed by a vision, but generally, I think most home in on the Vision from the Narrative.

The younger one is, the more likely that his narrative is informed by pop culture and various second- and third-hand impressions of history.  These may be bolstered or challenged by more intellectual(-sounding) presentations of these narratives.  Young people often feel themselves to be above narratives--when they are the most vulnerable to soaking them up, thinking they are "discovering" the truth they are being fed.  Youth are typically hungry for particular kinds of truth.  The narrative that they are more enlightened than all past ages and are on the verge of creating a utopian society merely by voting (without requiring any courage or principled stand) for a big establishment that rejects traditional notions of social responsibility and that promises to care for them all their lives -- this is a particularly appealing narrative to modern youth.  They really dig rebelling in this way.  How many of these young "activists" could even understand how and why Reagan's 1964 speech was so meaningful to people then and now?  There's no way for a conservative to answer that question without feeling some feeling of depression.

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