Political fairy tales **Bumped (’cause it was getting lost below)**

(The picture above is a print from 1790 showing the mutiny on the Bounty.)

Fairy tales are enjoyable on one level and, on another level, they’re quite useful to pass on cultural messages. Little Red Riding Hood is a great story with its exciting (for kids) repetition of the “But grandmother, what big (eyes, ears, teeth) you have” theme. It’s also an ancient reminder not to talk to strangers. Cinderella is a story that is tremendously satisfying, since virtue triumphs, but it was also told as a way to remind children, especially girls, to be passive and good, no matter how heinous their situation. In so many fairy tales, the underlying moral message is clear on its face. After all, as Lewis Carroll’s Duchess says, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” In other words, you don’t need the creepy, anti-Semitic, misogynistic Bruno Bettelheim to spell out these stories’ deeper meanings.

Sometimes, real stories mutate into a form of fairy tale in order to satisfy deeper societal needs or provide stronger societal messages. I was thinking about this as I listened from the front seat of our car to the classic 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty, which the kids were watching on the video screen in the back. It’s a great story. Captain Bligh, played magnificently by Charles Laughton, is the most sadistic of all sea captains, glorying in the almost unlimited power the British Navy bestowed on its captains. Clark Gable is the kind and virtuous First Mate, Fletcher Christian, who eventually chafes to the point of mutiny as he sees Laughton torture the helpless men under his command. The men are evenly divided into good types, who while not perfect embody the virtues of all free men, and bad types, who give free rein to their corruption. It was a story that began to resonate shortly after the actual events took place, and that had special meaning in the mid-1930s as fascism grew in Europe.

The only problem, though, is that the story is all wrong. Caroline Alexander went back and examined contemporaneous documents and, in a marvelous book called The Bounty, described what really happened. It turns out that Captain Bligh, who had sailed with Captain Cook, was an exemplary Captain. Taking his cue from Captain Cook, he kept an immaculate ship and forced food rich in Vitamin C on his reluctant sailors (who wanted only grog and beef), thereby almost completely wiping out on his ship the scurvy that had been the scourge of the sea for so many centuries. In an era when the Naval Code mandated the lash for even the most minor infractions, Captain Bligh’s documented record shows him to have been an unusually humane captain. He used the lash, but with much less frequency than his peers. He preferred tongue lashings, which did humiliate the more sensitive men serving under him.

Fletcher Christian on the other hand was a much less exemplary man. He was a malcontent and a trouble maker. He came from small gentry and considered Captain Bligh, who had worked his way up, to be beneath him.

Things on the outward journey to Tahiti were relatively uneventful. The problem began on the island, which truly was a paradise. While Captain Bligh was busily fulfilling his mission to acquire hundreds of breadfruit plans for scientific experiments in England, the sailors — who had been cooped for almost a year on a small, smelly, hot British ship, eating the normal rotten (truly) limited diet that was available in the pre-refrigeration era — were glorying in their freedom. Suddenly, they had a finite work load, abundant amounts of fresh food and, most importantly, unlimited access to women who were remarkably free with their favors by any standards (not just 18th Century British standards).

When the Tahitian idyll ended, the sailors went back on ship reluctantly, and very quickly decided that they simply would not accept another year on board, especially since, for most of them, that year would be followed by a possible lifetime of servitude to the British Navy. So they rebelled. None of the mutineers had the stomach to murder the captain or his men, so they put them in small launch in the middle of the Pacific. In a stunning feat of navigation, one to which even the 1935 movie pays homage, Bligh steered his men over thousands of miles of open sea to safe harbor.

The true story is a great one, but it certainly isn’t the “slaves successfully take on a tyrant” story that has been so popular in the modern era. The truth also wasn’t very useful when some of the mutineers were captured and returned to England for court martial. These men’s families, in an effort to improve their cases, began to slander Captain Bligh so as to white wash their own relatives’ conduct during the whole of the mutiny. Thus, the story morphed from the probable truth, which was that malcontents mutinied against a fairly humane captain (a manifestly hanging offense), to an almost certain lie that had brave and free Englishmen rebelling against a sadistic captain’s blood lust (a much better tale in court). And because the false narrative was culturally the better one, for 200 years Captain Bligh has been one of the most unjustly maligned people in history.

Nowadays, with a very liberal cadre of reporters controlling the mainstream media, the fairy tales our media creates out of actual facts are actually similar in theme to the fairy tale that, for more than 200 years, has so besmirched poor Captain Bligh. I’m thinking here of the Duke lacrosse case, which was “Bligh-ed” to fit a racial, rather than a class, narrative. Here’s how John Leo describes that fairy tale:

If anyone ever starts a museum of horrible explanations, the one-liner by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas about his magazine’s dubious reporting on the Duke non-rape case — “The narrative was right but the facts were wrong” — is destined to become a popular exhibit, right up there with “we had to destroy the village to save it.”

What Mr. Thomas seems to mean is that the newsroom view of the lacrosse players as privileged, sexist, and arrogant white male jocks was the correct angle on the story. It wasn’t.

According to Duke’s female lacrosse team and other women on campus, the male players are solid citizens who treat women well. Many players volunteer to tutor poor children in Durham. Some players are privileged, but most come from ordinary middle-class homes. There is no evidence of a racist team culture.

One objectionable racial comment was reported that night, in response to a racial taunt from one of the strippers. It occurred after the party and the player involved was not one of those indicted. The mainstream press, most conspicuously the New York Times, botched the story by imposing a race-gender-class narrative line. The facts were wrong, as Mr. Thomas said, but the narrative line was wrong too.

The lacrosse case isn’t the only one in which liberal reporters perverted the facts to support a more important (to them) narrative. Rathergate springs to mind quickly as an example of the “false but accurate” idea. That is, the facts were false, but the ideas the media was putting forward — Bush was a manipulative rich boy who traded on political contacts to cheat America — were entirely accurate if you’re a left leaning member of the American media. (You can go here, to Media Mythbusters, for a comprehensive list of news myths, all of which are politely debunked.)

In the same article I quoted from above, John Leo details other popular narratives in which the media has deemed the facts entirely irrelevant as long as the fairy tale created suits the socialist/liberal message. For example:

Sometimes a narrative line is so powerful it can resist even a massive array of facts. When Rigoberta Menchu’s account of class and ethnic warfare in Guatemala was revealed to be largely false, many professors and critics said this didn’t matter much because her book contained emotional truth. If it’s good for the Left and since it won her a Nobel Prize, who cares if she made it up?

Ms. Menchu’s black-and-white depiction of villainous landowners and virtuous oppressed peasants was too simple — the landowners often cooperated with the peasants. The great land struggle she described between her father and the wealthy landowners was actually between her father and his in-laws. Her allegedly poor and oppressed father had title to 6,800 acres of land. Liberal sociologist David Stoll interviewed 120 people in Ms. Menchu’s hometown and revealed an astonishing amount of mendacity. But her book “I Rigoberta Menchu” is still revered and studied on campuses across the country. The narrative line is useful.

After the Tawana Brawley hoax was exposed, the Nation magazine ran an article saying that “in cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn’t matter whether the crime occurred or not,” since the pattern of whites abusing blacks is true. Whatever.

We like to think that we’re sophisticated enough to see through these falsehoods, or at least to suspect their existence. Certainly the blogosphere helps serve as the type of instant corrective that never existed before. That’s how Rathergate and the Fauxtography scandals were so quickly exposed. Nevertheless, to true believers, no amount of actual facts can corrupt their belief in the purity of the underlying ideological narrative. Also, for the many who aren’t true believers, but who are simply ill informed or disinterested, a good story is enough in itself. That’s why we remember Captain Bligh as a bad guy, not the decent soul he was — the former is a better story.

In today’s world, where we admire underdogs, the Left’s ability to fashion underdog narratives gives it a striking advantage in promulgating modern political fairy tales that capture the average American’s fancy and quickly wipe out any interest a credulous audience might have in the actual facts. This is a profoundly worrisome problem for conservatives, who need to figure out either (a) how to take the factual facts and spin good stories with those facts or (b) how to shout loudly enough, or in a manner interesting enough, that conservatives can expose the truth behind the fairy tales in a way that will capture the public’s interest before the narrative becomes set in stone. Blogs are a good start but, until we take control of the narrative stream, we may win in the ballot box, but we face the risk of being on the losing side of history.

UPDATE: Here’s Mark Steyn discussing fact free myth-making when it came to John F. Kennedy — and how those myths changed the face of modern liberalism.

21 Responses

  1. Book,
    Lacking an existing descriptor or phrase for what I need, I will invent one here: in the “representational reality” of the mediasphere, the Left holds the power, still. Though we all see their monopoly slipping away from them, the old media still controls the narrative, as you say.

    The nightly news programs, the major newspapers and newsmagazines, Hollywood movies to a lesser extent, create this fictional reality on our screens and in what remains of a national conversation. The narrative overlay of events is what is remembered, talked about, analyzed, and set in stone as the history. And you are right to point out that those who control what that narrative is to a large extent control “what everybody” knows, the common opinions concerning the topics of the day. Harried and thoughtless people take it all in with their morning coffee or their drive home after work or whatever news show they watch. Hell, even at the airport the mediasphere in the form of CNN is forced onto waiting passengers, where the narrative is reinforced to people who maybe didnt get it the first time.

    A more forceful president would help; remember how the Clinton White House, including the old charmer himself, would immediately get out their version of whatever story they were concerned about? GWB has been MIA in this part of the struggle, allowing every fabulist construction by the Left to go unchallenged. And of course the congressional repubs are generally useless because spineless.

    OK, I’ll stop now.

  2. You are right, Book. This is an important issue — perhaps the important issue of our time — with undercurrents that run deep.

    The late Joseph Campbell showed that cultures are shaped by their myths. Myths tell us, sometimes subliminally, what is right and what is wrong; who we are and what our place is in the world; what is to be valued and what is to be ignored; how to live a “proper” life; how to become a hero or heroine. For better or for worse, myths prefigure our destiny as a culture.

    In one of his series interviews with Dr. Campbell, Bill Moyers asked how myths might form and evolve in our own present society. Campbell replied that he didn’t think it possible, since events are now moving too fast and change is happening too rapidly.

    But consider how in ancient times myths developed and were propagated. Was it not the storytellers who gave myths their shape and spread them from campfire to campfire? Without itinerant storytellers how could myths ever have taken form and had such influence over such a long period of time?

    And who are the storytellers of today but the media? And what are the myths they are creating and sustaining? That America is evil, acquisitive and corrupt; that free market economies are inherently unjust; that intact families are no longer important; that men are both violent oppressors and buffoons; that it is never justified under any circumstances to fight for freedom; that all Christians are hypocrites; and so on, and so on.

    These are the “truths” that underlie the stories (they cannot be called news reports) told by our mainstream media. These are the “truths” which live on in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

    It is ironic that even though the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, the noxious memes it planted in the halls of academe and nurtured in our newsrooms are now bearing toxic fruit in many of these myths. The poison has already entered our system, and we must fight it. As you noted, facts and evidence are not an effective antidote. Myths cannot be killed. But they can be replaced.

    What we need are new myths, new narratives, new stories inspirational and true to facts. In this connection the work of you and your colleagues in the blogosphere is crucial. Now what we need is a person who can articulate the story to the people of our country in such a way that it reaches not just their minds, but penetrates their hearts as well.

    Who do we have who can do that? Who will be the next Lincoln, the next Churchill, the next Ronald Reagan? Who do the rest of you reading this blog think it might be? One of the current leading candidates, or is there a dark horse someplace?

    Personally, based on what I’ve seen and heard so far, I think Newt Gingrich comes the closest. He has the courage to tell unpopular truths and is able to do so in an unusually engaging way.

  3. Everybody has so much to say all of the time, but not as many people can think critically, nor listen. Part of real dialogue and conversation is the acceptance that one’s own views may be changed from the experience. I can agree that we must maintain fidelity to the truth, but when the perspective is adversarial towards “the left” (rather than in seeking to find and expand upon the common kernels of truth), the goal is distorted.
    Truth for truth’s sake is enough. I won’t insult anyone else with the presumption that they’d intentionally seek any less. And if they get distorted along the way, then I will recognize that I, too, could’ve made that error, and I will cheerfully help them back along the path towards truth.

  4. If we bundle all the myths propagated by the Left, beginning with the 1870s Paris Commune all the way to the post-modern, multicultural myths of 21st Century, and juxtapose them with where they have led Western Civilization, from Communism to the appeasement of Jihadism, we could simply condense them into “the Suicide Narrative”.

  5. [...] they want failure,” people will turn away from the Democrats. He forgets that after 40 years of Democratic mythologizing, many people have bought into that topsy turvey world view. So, on to the gentle fisk: If African [...]

  6. This is a very nicely narrated post, Book.

    As for the topic, propaganda and psychological warfare skills are always required in the course of human events. If you won’t use them, your enemies will. Currently the mass sewer mind that we call MSM, holds the high ground in terms of resources and tactical advantage. This simply means that we must operate as guerillas. Hit and run attacks combined with fatigue to the enemy or targets.

    The first strike option is very important. For he who attacks first, gains the advantage. At least when it is the occupation forces we are talking about. The MSM must be put on the defensive, using whatever methods you have. You can not allow them time to think up counters or attack plans of their own. This combined with shrinking their logistics, meaning the resources by which they create stories and illusions, will allow us to fragment their forces and destroy them in detail.

    There are methods from the media that one can copy. For example, if a publication such as the TNR wants to target the military, then TNR should have itself be targeted. Make the story about the person making the story. However, disinformation is probably one of the most effective tools to trap the media. The media are tools and very guillible, therefore there is much use we can make of them for the war effort or anything else domestic as well. See, they don’t know what a false story is compared to a true story. So if you feed the media false information, while acting as a “whistle blower”, the media will believe you regardless of any inconsistencies in your story.

    With enough of these operations in effect, you can destroy the media’s credibility because they will have put too much emphasis on false stories. Stories that you decide when to break, stories that you decide to whom you will break it to (Fox News would love reporting about a media scandal about CNN for example). See, this story about the Duke Lacrosse deal was already milked of its worth because the media had time to plan for what happens if the jury did this or the jury did that. However, if you are the one that decides when to break the story that the media was lying and falsifying information, then that is a first strike attack that they can not defend against. You need time to create defenses, time that the media would not then have.

    The military, as one example, is not permitted to conduct psyops on the American people. There might be a slight wedge however, since reporters often don’t consider themselves Americans, but rather citizens of the global world. In that case, you can conduct disinformation operations against reporters, and it is only the reporters that then lie to the American people.

    Destroying the credibility of the media is a good idea. But you can’t do it alone, since it would be better to have the help of the media itself in destroying the media’s credibility. Disinformation has two general effects. One, it makes it so that the target, the media, can not know what is true or what is false because the true whistleblowers are intermingled with the false ones. True in the sense that they believe in what they are saying, not true in the sense that they know what they are doing. Two, it makes it so that the media cannot conduct offensive operations against the American people because the American people no longer believe that anything the media says is true. This would create a vacuum, which is useless, but if you then empower the blogs or Fox News to fill the gap, you have something positive and stable now.

    The President, which was empowered by the Constitution specifically to fight foreign and domestic propaganda attacks on the American people, has more powerful methods at his disposal. Legal as well as moral, or political. However, since he chooses not to use those powers, other people have to find other ways to fight the media.

    It isn’t a problem that people like to see underdog stories of the powerless fighting the powerful. You can use that to your advantage by focusing the story on the media, rather than what the media focuses on. The media is powerful yet they try very hard to allow nobody to realize this. They have made many mistakes that have caused pain to those weaker than them. Look at the examples of the miners that the media reported was alive when in fact they were dead. The media were very incompetent and thus cruel to their listeners. But why didn’t anybody make a story about the incompetence and lying of the media, how the media reporters, editors, etc were all corrupt at heart and hurting people weaker then they? Because the media was on the attack, and when you are focused on defense, you are not thinking of hurting the other guy. The lack of resources and organization also caused this as well. Fox News have the resources, but they don’t have the requisite hate that is required for relentless attacks. The mass sewer mind, however, has plenty of hate for us.

  7. Having a good myth, with proper victims and proper oppressors, is what people want. If, for example, people actually wanted to deplore brutality at sea, we wouldn’t talk about a “Captain Bligh”, we’d talk about a “Captain Pigot” Captain Hugh Pigot was a commander who made William Bligh look like a caring, concerned, nineties sort of captain. His ghastly career is recounted in Dudley Pope’s book The Black Ship. Pigot was a precursor of the Pointy-Haired Boss of the Dilbert comic strip — erratic, choleric, arbitrary, and yes brutal. The mutiny which led to his death was provoked when he promised to flog the last man down from the yardarm, in order to get the crew to furl a sail expeditiously — and three of the crew fell off the yard to the deck and died.

    But the mutineers couldn’t be considered as warm and fuzzy types because, you see, the mutiny took place in the middle of a war, and they took the ship over to the Spanish. Not much Resolute English Yeomen Standing Up for the Rights of Englishmen, is there?

  8. History is full of little human inconsistencies that must be smoothed out for the myth masters creating a new utopia for mankind.

  9. What Highlander (#2, above) said….. Well done.

    One quibble on the Duke lacrosse players — these fine, upstanding young men *DID* hire two strippers to come and perform for them at their drunken party…..

    They were still jobbed, and I think Nifong should be disbarred and jailed. But I do hope those kids learned a lesson from this….had they been acting as gentlemen, none of this would have happened.

  10. That, Earl, is a very good point. I’ve often thought it’s no coincidence that the rise of political correctness occurred at the same time as the decline of old-fashioned good manners. Something had to fill the void, and it was a malign thing that did.

  11. Years ago I read a similar account in Commentary about the Bounty. I think, but am uncertain, that it was written by Richard Grenier.

    Here’s another example of the narrative being more important than the truth.

    Some 20 years ago a man named Michael Moore was editor of Mother Jones magazine for about a year. The governing body of the magazine had assigned Paul Berman to go to Nicaragua and report on the progress that the Sandanistas were making in their newly minted worker’s paradise.

    Though a committed leftist, Berman came back with a disturbing report documenting how Ortega and company were whittling away the rights of the Nicaraguans.

    Michael Moore refused to run the piece claiming that it was doing Reagan’s work for him.

    Mother Jones’s governing body wasn’t pleased that Moore refused to run the article they had commissioned adn fired him.

    Of course, Michael Moore, has gone on to fame and fortune as the maker of “documentaries.” And he has been know to cry “censorship” falsely when hasn’t gotten his way. But it’s Moore who was the censor 20 years ago. Remarkably no one in the MSM seems to care and takes all his claims at face value.

  12. [...] Bookworm Room, “Political Fairy Tales **Bumped (’cause it was getting lost below)**” [...]

  13. [...] once again, Arab stringers are selling the credulous American media a bill of goods and that media, perfectly content with its fairy tale narrative about the Iraq War, is passing on manifestly silly stories and photos to the American public as if they are actually [...]

  14. [...] once again, Arab stringers are selling the credulous American media a bill of goods and that media, perfectly content with its fairy tale narrative about the Iraq War, is passing on manifestly silly stories and photos to the American public as if they are actually [...]

  15. [...] “Don’t Make Waves!” Theory of Iraqi Politics”. Second place honors went to Bookworm Room’s “Political Fairy Tales **Bumped (’cause it was getting lost below)**” These were [...]

  16. [...] post, which took second place, you already know. It was Political Fairy Tales, where I argued that our modern media retells ideological myths rather than conveying actual [...]

  17. Every time you’re objecting to a media distortion, keep writing and screaming at them, “You’re mything the point!”
    ;)

  18. That’s a wonderful pun, Brian H. I always enjoy it when a comment surprises a laugh out of me.

  19. [...] The votes are in from this week’s Watchers Council and the winner in the Council category was “The “Don’t Make Waves!” Theory of Iraqi Politics” by Big Lizards. Finishing second was “Political Fairy Tales Bumped (‘cause it was getting lost below)” by Bookworm Room. [...]

  20. Great boysc9f7c28a10eb9d5db52ddae5f4ff3bc7

  21. Thanks

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