by Michelle Dean
Political protests are hardly occasions for subtlety, but even so, the overblown analogies to the Middle East in Wisconsin are rather difficult to take. Scott Walker is the “Mubarak of the Midwest” — or, to more Biblically minded commentators, a “Pharoah.” Similarly, the protesters are the people who have finally risen up to bring a “Tunisia Moment” to America. Paul Krugman has fallen for it too, terming Paul Ryan’s comparison of Cairo and Madison “unintentionally apt.” No list of pizza donations goes by without mention that some benefactors are Egyptian. Even the protesters themselves have picked up on it, suggesting Walker become President of Libya. Lest anyone think I’m picking only on the left here, it’s clear that despite the right’s whining about the signage, they would love to use the Middle Eastern metaphor for their own cause in Wisconsin — witness one writer at Commentary positing Scott Walker as the true voice of the “people” and “change.”
We can spend a lot of time parsing out all the ways in which Middle Eastern Country X (in this rhetoric they function as a genre, which should be a clue to the problem) differs from the situation in Wisconsin. And maybe that provides its own fun — it’s the sort of thing “The Daily Show” gets a lot of material out of. But hyperbole does not correlate perfectly with insincerity. We don’t need to nitpick to know, almost instinctively, why these metaphors are being used. To invoke them makes you a part of a story that is bigger and older and certainly more archetypal than your daily routine of alarm clock, work, home, supermarket could possibly stir up. It’s not hard to see why anyone might want that.
But what’s strange here is that the story people are choosing to envision themselves a part of isn’t one that’s about America particularly — and that is telling. (The protests on Saturday were posited as a “Rally to Save the American Dream” but that didn’t seem to have quite the same head of steam and went under-reported.) Every time I read about the protests in Wisconsin, I think not of the Middle East, but of Tony Judt. I think about that lecture he gave the year before he died in which he asked, “Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?”
The emphasis is his. In part, Judt was only reiterating the kind of frustration with complacency you often hear when you hang out with older leftist radicals. But his solution was a bit different from theirs: he doesn’t blame the people. He blames the leaders of the left for being unable to convince people that the state belonged to them, and more precisely that it could do anything for them. They have all the slogans and the signs but what they don’t have is the drive of a good story.
I admit that I felt some resistance to Judt’s argument when I first read the lecture. It seemed strange to accuse anyone in America of lacking capacity for fantasy — and even more implausible to claim that the thing about which Americans are particularly unimaginative is America itself. Glenn Beck’s problem, we can probably all agree, is not a lack of imagination. But then, in Wisconsin, the point seems to be to imagine yourself somewhere else than America entirely.
It’s too easy to dismiss these analogies as people simply making sense of their place in the world. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion writes in “The White Album.” I often come across this quote on the internet, usually trotted out by the bookish and writerly as a sort of self-help mantra, a reassurance that serious writing is still vital to a culture that largely ignores it. But as with all things Didion, in context she isn’t being sentimental in the least. She’s talking about how we use stories to fool ourselves into keeping calm and carrying on:
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
Or at least we do for a while.
In other words, this living by stories that we do is not so much a moral command as it is a coping strategy. But at some point the whole mess of the real thing comes rushing back in. I’d like to think, of course, that when that point arrives we just make up a new story. Instead, I think it might be simply that there comes a moment when we realize we are standing out in the slush eating cold pizza, and it’s time to go home.
Maybe that moment, for the Wisconsin protesters, will come when they win. I hope it does; I hope Walker backs off. But even so, I suspect that all that victory will show is that the rhetoric about Standing Up to the Man is great for a while, but it has an expiration date. One inevitable feature of the whole epic story about the People vs. the Evil Ruler that we keep telling ourselves is its necessarily fixed endpoint. Topple the dictator, repeal the law, and you can put that book back on the shelf for a while.
Which brings us back to Judt. What’s missing here is not really imaginative capacity. The problem is instead that a crucial character — i.e., the American state — has been written right out of the narrative. The funny thing about reducing a story, after all, is that it reduces a story. It keeps us from having to ask other questions about what’s going on in Wisconsin than identifying the precise level of cravenness attributable to Scott Walker. Hard to believe at the moment, I know, but there are other, more pressing questions to be answered, such as: what is the proper role of government? Should it provide basic services, or shouldn’t it? That these answers will be complicated and controversial aren’t why we don’t discuss them. It’s that they don’t fit the parameters of the story, which limits itself to the “people” in the square and the “tyrant” they oppose, and to nothing so prosaic as, you know, government.
It doesn’t have to be that way, obviously. But one wonders if America will ever get out of this cycle. The tendency to focus on grand narrative and then retire it when there is actual work to be done has found a poignant case in President Obama. I don’t want to enter into a debate about the precise percentage of some list of campaign promises on which Obama can be said to have delivered; I’m not here to declare him a failure or a success. My point is only that he and his Administration appear to have adopted the cliché about campaigning in poetry and ruling in prose as a mission statement. The house style, you could say, turns out to be ill-represented by the jacket copy, and he and his team seem almost proud of it. Perhaps that only proves that Obama understands the time limits of popular appetite for these stories. But every so often he’ll go back there — referring to his role as that of “North Star” or saying he wants to live up to the expectations of a murdered 9-year-old girl. And when he does, he always seems — to me, at least — to be animated by sincere belief.
In which case it’s hard not to see a missed opportunity there. The narrative punch of Obama’s election derived largely from the fact that, as a black man, he was a near-literal symbol of a new era of inclusiveness in American politics. I don’t mean that the election augured a “post-racial” era. I mean something smaller but almost as significant: that for a whole swath of people, who had — accurately, it must be said — long felt the brunt of being outside the founders’ notions of “We the People,” an imaginative possibility opened up. Suddenly it meant there was actually some chance of the government belonging to you — of its being representative of you — in a very direct way. That could have been the story Obama relied on. But when it came time to pass health care, he dropped it. Instead he went with an inside-baseball formulation: blaming “Washington,” “partisanship” and those other stock players.
Of course, no one thinks that politics ought to operate exclusively on the level of narrative. But the thing is that wth all the pragmatics, all the small increments, well, you need to have some idea of why you’re doing them. And our storytelling is letting us down these days, whether we’re talking about Wisconsin or healthcare. People may need stories in order to live, but by the same token, they also need ones that tell them why they need public schools and cheap prescription drugs. And this no amount of high-flown rhetoric about “people power” and “revolution” will do.
Michelle Dean’s writing has appeared, among other places, at Bitch, The American Prospect, and The Rumpus. She sometimes blogs here.