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The Red and Blue Book narratives

As Rayne points out in comments to my blog post on the administration’s support of torture, to many Americans the events look very different. America harbors duelling narratives.

The Blue Book’s narrative is a story of creeping fascism in which the torturing of captives and suspects is just Chapter One. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are Kristallnacht and the invasion of Iraq is the invasion of the Rhineland — not in their moral equivalences, which are impossible to calibrate perfectly, but as harbingers: We should be awoken by them as the Germans were not.

The Red Book’s narrative looks at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as signs of the seriousness of the threat facing us, and as indications that we are at last taking up the task of leadership we’ve avoided for too long. Our foes treat people far worse than we do, and to stop them we have to shed the crippling moral relativism that has been 20th Century liberalism’s legacy.

The Blue Book sees recent events as steps towards a totalitarian state in which all rights are sacrificed in the name of homeland security. The Red Book sees a world of bright new democracies that drastically narrow the terrorists’ freedom to operate.

The Blue Book fears a policy of appeasement being applied internally, so it wants to draw an early line. (“First they came for the Jews and I said nothing…”) The Red Book thinks we are now emerging from an international policy of appeasement, so it’s happy to see the old lines erased.

The Blue Book worries about America becoming Germany. The Red Book worries about America becoming France.

I am, of course, over-simplifying. But narratives are more stubborn than facts because narratives give facts their relevancy and meaning. I wonder if there is a narrative we can agree on that will get us past our differences.

I am not hopeful. But if a politician were to write such a narrative, I’d vote for her…

13 Responses to “The Red and Blue Book narratives”

  1. Filters

    Filters I was thinking about Dave Weinberger’s post as I was flipping through a bit of ephemera I found…

  2. Here’s a narative: two (groups of) people talking past each other, completely failing to communicate in any meaningful way. Nobody’s buying this idea that the lunatic opposition has any kind of reason or thought or even a brain in which to house those. We support what’s obviously right, and they support what’s morally repugnant. This fact is so intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, that nobody really believes in talking about it. All those “conversations” we appear to be having are really just ways of showing our supporters how reasonable we’re being with the slack-jawed heathens on the other side.

    I find this space-age neutrality you’re talking about just fascinating as all hell. I do. It’s just that it’s blocking my view of the no-holds-barred Texas cage death match between Good and Evil that I’m being taxed to support for my entertainment.

    For the record (the one that shows how reasonable I am with the heathens), I think your analysis is very interesting. I’m just pissed off that it’s so rare.

  3. Excellent post, David. Very well stated. What would make you think, though, that the stories could be reconciled? The politician (you call him she) who could reconcile the stories would be Dick Minim, ever the voice of moderation, reason and compromise. “Let us heal the wounds, etc.” That too is a narrative and quite weak, almost laughable. You have risen above the fray, in imagination. Do you really think that is possible today? “You are with us or against us.” Were the narratives of Red and Blue in the Civil War ever reconciled, or are we still fighting it out?

    The decision to polarize, demonize, and intimidate, to wage war on the oppostion (Horwowitz and Rove) was made in higher places than your own. Until that decision is rescinded, short of one side winning and driving the other into hiding or silence, you have to find your own way to resist, or go along to get along.

    Your post is a pretty good ploy, but I don’t see it keeping you out of the Freedom Pens.

  4. Weinberger is a Uniter not a Divider

    Posted by Dick Minim David Weinberger ably summarizes the narratives of the Reds and the Blues and calls for an uber-Narrative that would reconcile us all in a single peaceful tale. I second that suggestion. Reasonable minds can always agree, without r…

  5. Put these two narratives inside a single politician – Kerry, e.g. – and watch his body explode. Why fashion a charade using extreme tropes that play on catastrophic paranoid fear on the one hand, and baseless messianic enthusiasm on the other, only to ask if there’s hope of a third narrative to subsume them?

    A narrator might start by rewriting the first two, questioning, undoing their desperate extremities, and reminding us that the saner moments of open societies involve a dogged effort to dispel the seductions of an absolute historicism that paralyzes choice in the present for the sake of coherent visions of glorious (red)/horrific (blue) futures.

  6. Most problematic is that this is never actually debated. Publicly, everyone is horified by Abu Ghraib, so there is not public debate about these extreme tactics. Blame it on a few bad apples and that’s that.

    The real argument against these tactics are that they are short-run ineffective and long-run counter-productive, in addition to the moral depravity of it.

    Tutor’s comment is subtle, but I think he’s right. The center you seek is outside the red paradigm just as surely as the blue narative. Into the pen for you as well.

  7. Gerry, of course the Tutor’s comment is subtle and he’s right! He is the Tutor, after all. (I mean this sincerely, not snidely.)

    But, who said I was proposing a center, moderate, or conciliatory narrative? I don’t think there’s any narrative that could unify us (hence my lack of hope), but if there is, it would not be combinatory. It would transpose and transform, not reconcile.

  8. I don’t think it is necessary to unify. What we need is a left and a right that can share the Public Square, productively debating the issues of the day. I do expect the current regime to fall under its own wait, hopefully sooner rather than later. The question is what will be there to replace it.

  9. Exactly. I don’t know that we aren’t badly in need of a third (or more) viable narrative to break this impasse. I know I seek something else as I work inside the party of my choice, something other than what has been offered of late, something that is based on the ethics of the country in which I was raised — and not the one in which I find myself now. Can the place that others around the world envied as a paragon of democracy and freedom, innovation and individualism, generosity and self-sacrifice, strength and compassion be raised to its former glories from what we have at hand, or must we sink lower before this is possible? I dread to think that worse must come to pass first…

  10. Yeah- Sort of going further with what Rayne was saying:

    Our respective parties are continuously reshaping and changing. The issues in the world are also continuously shifting and sorting differently.

    Red & Blue are starkly apart right now, but with the way things keep changing, who knows if it will be as painfully apart in 10-15 years.

    I doubt that the story right now will continue to be the story for longer than 15 years; Something will happen, something will shift, and we will be in a new situation, with new thoughts.

    That is: I don’t think we’re “stuck,” and we need to do something special to get “unstuck.”

    This is just a historical impasse. Maybe.

  11. Perhaps the narrative is to be told in the third person and the tale is of an America that is increasingly irrelevant in this world.

    I have heard this idea – America’s irrelevancy – from three separate sources in the last few days. The sources – one couple and two individuals – saw this independently after some weeks of travel in far flung places.

    Don’t know if that makes it the Black Book version, or what.

    And no disrespect intended, but I’m wondering if the narrative of an America envied by the rest of the world as a paragon of freedom and democracy etc. as Rayne suggests wasn’t really only ever self-generated and self-deluding hype? That America was only ever really a destination of choice for the most desparate of souls and opportunists most keen to turn a buck. (And for some not a choice.)

    I’m just sayin’.

  12. Brian, America was once that place; I’ve spoken with enough older emigres to our shores to know they felt awed by the promise of this place. They also knew what hard work was before they got here and expected to continue to work hard for decades after their arrival, but they were certain they would have a better go of it than they did in other countries. (I’ve had this conversation with relatives by marriage who came here from Greece, and with friends and associates that came here from all over Asia. They’re not wealthy, but they’re happy, happy.)

    That Lady in the harbor actually did stand for something wonderful, even if it was an imperfect thing.

    And now? There are emigres who are stuck here, having bought the idea that they would do better here and now cannot afford to go home. America is *becoming* irrelevant, has not completely arrived there, but another four years might seal its fate.

    The other factor that will seal the deal is the power vacuum; is there another entity that will step forward as the shining beacon of unlimited possibility and potential?

    I know I’m going to be learning Mandarin and Cantonese soon…

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