Careful observers of politics and culture usually learn how to spot the dominant narrative, which is a set of presumptions influencing how most of the top-tier actors in the “infotainment” complex see the world (not coincidentally, professional influencers expect the rest of us to share their presumptions, because they sleep better when they think they work for us, rather than for each other).
Anything that influences Google doodles, underscores Yahoo News headline choices, wins Academy Awards, or makes regular appearances in the monologues of late-night comedians with TV shows is part of the dominant narrative. In the first hour of his August 1 radio broadcast, Rush Limbaugh described the dominant narrative as an “east coast parochial” mindset that can be found “in media and in life.” (His point was that he hadn’t recognized the reach of that mindset — meaning the influence of the prevailing narrative– when he started his career almost 30 years ago).
The dominant narrative, for example, maintains the fiction of “unbiased” journalism. It also refers to acts of terrorism as “tragedies,” thereby removing moral culpability for murder and mayhem from terrorists (just in case they’re simply over-zealous people with legitimate grievances). Those of us who care about the meanings of words know that a hurricane demolishing a seaside town is a tragedy, but when a bomber blows up a crowded mall or a school in that same town, it’s not just “tragic,” it’s wrong.
Scrolling through the web sites that aggregate news stories can be both a time sink and an invitation to cynicism, which is why I don’t do it much. But every once in awhile, a confluence of stories gets my attention because it seems to subvert the dominant narrative. That happened this morning.
Regardless of your personal views on the matter, the only correct answer to the question, “Which major political party in the United States officially supports a woman’s ‘right to choose,’ when that phrase is understood to mean deciding to abort her unborn child at any time during her pregnancy?” is “the Democrat party.” Imagine, then, the consternation among defenders of the status quo when some Democrats themselves take exception to that policy.
Conventional wisdom also has it that President Obama restored America’s reputation in the world, and that our national reputation needed what polish he could give it because President George W. Bush before him had been a “cowboy” with insufficient appreciation for — to pick one obvious example — the complexities of Muslim life in the Middle East.
But suppose conventional wisdom is wrong? Suppose further that Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, is winning plaudits not because she continues to toe the line established by her recent predecessors, but because she (and the president for whom she works) have deliberately departed from that line?
Suppose the U.S. military isn’t quite as agnostic about whether we use it for social experiments as some of the admirals and generals who testify before Congress would like members of the Appropriations and Armed Services committees to believe?
People who subvert the dominant narrative are chided (penalty box!) if they seem to be properly credentialed, or dismissed as outliers if they move in the “wrong” circles to begin with (hence the snarky comments from progressives about Michele Bachmann’s “scary eyes” when she was a conservative member of Congress, and, more recently, Senator John McCain’s longstanding but suddenly open contempt for people who disagree with him).
In short, while peacefulness and perspective can still be found in this beautiful but polarized world, it’s a fascinating and unsettling time to follow news, provided you keep a wary eye on the pet assumptions of the establishment, which never likes its own faults exposed.
Patrick O’Hannigan writes at Compass Headings