The "Debt-Ceiling Crisis": Competing narratives at the waterhole

In our recent “Debt-Cieling crisis” we see a new-age fight at the waterhole, a primeval scene from the struggle for survival depicted chillingly in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and repeated whenever “times are hard” and group interests over valuable commodities collide.
Competing groups converge over the precious resource. In the scene above, it’s the dirty waterhole; in the current United States of America it’s the money supply, society’s material wealth. In Kubric’s movie, the group with the better tools wins. In American History, it’s more complicated, but idealist believers in the commonweal and non-violence are have been killed. The groups are fighting mad.

On American talk radio, you hear the sides lined up on either side of the waterhole. On one side, the bigoted loudmouths of the right, who got to this pulpit first, and who do it right. They know how to push buttons for fear and anger evocation. In accordance with tribal tradition, they point to outsiders that threaten the way things are supposed to be, the way our ancestors had it and, they suppose, intended it ever should be. Ann Coulter is compelling to watch.  Rush, et al, are slick communicators; they know how to push existential threat, press on universal panic buttonsOur (and so my) very identity is at stake! We (and so I) must resist! 


To affrighted Americans on the right (Tea Party-types), rallying under the father’s flag is an atavistic response to outside challenges. It comforts the conservative.

On the other end of the spectrum of talk radio–and not nearly as successful–you have the bigoted loudmouths of the left. These “liberals” disgust me more because they have the conservative tone of wrath where there should be magnanimity. They brandish torch and pitchfork where there should be good will to all–more “we” and goals, less “me” and fears. But instead, on Chicago’s AM radio “Progressive Talk” station you get name-calling, broad-brushing, and material-based fracases–the same low road to blows of their opponents: “All these conservatives…” you hear. And, “These morons on the right…”

There are folks like me (and perhaps Barack Obama) who show up at the waterhole and think it would be a good idea not to call names but to reason and talk together before any action is taken. You’re a unique individual with your own needs and concerns, and so are we. Is my preferred approach. Let us sit down and reason together, fellow human.

Such conciliation was prevented by the loud report of the Tea Partiers’ manufactured debt-crisis last week. This group brooks no parley with its fellow legislators, whom it sees as the enemy–the tax-and spending liberals who’ve brought us to this impasse. New to congress and part of a cohort (or gang), they wanted to quickly make their aggressive presence known, and the debt-ceiling debate was a way to do it. If Washington D.C. were Deadwood, their actions were akin to the toughs who ride into town emptying their pistols in the air, creating alarm, distrust, and fear in the commons. In such a space, reasonable discourse is more difficult, if not impossible. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” is what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is reputed to have said. And if you can manufacture your own crisis, all the better–why not pre-emtively shut up your opponents through shock?

Unable to respond in time, the quieter proponents of reasonable human discourse get stomped at the waterhole, and an ethos of privation for the many, greed for the “successful” wins out. Perhaps the loudmouth fear-based folks on both sides are happy with this state of affairs. It perpetuates their preferred narrative–endless struggle. But does the fight have to be so one-sided?  Where is the brave younger man we elected president in 2008? Why is he not boldly championing the interests of the poor in eloquent speeches and moving both sides forward?

Robert Reich has put the blame for BO’s lack of liberal spirit on his ever-altering group of advisors. Reich’s call to be bold makes sense, and would be heard above the Tea Party clamor, since it would quickly translate into material goods for large swaths of the population. Listen to this presidential advisor, I urged BO in a tweet yesterday. Professor Drew Weston in this NYTimes piece, states that BO may be irredeemably corrupted since his inauguration–our hoped-for prince bought-and-sold. Weston’s analysis of politics as theater and politicians as playwrights who try to get the public to buy their stories, their versions of reality, in other words, their narratives, seems right on to me. The folks at the waterhole are really just looking for a better story for today and tomorrow. So far they’ve gotten the horror show of the Tea Partiers, and no Frank Capra flick to counter it.

If the BO many of us elected three years ago were in office, we wouldn’t be here at the waterhole. We’d be in a growing economy of government-supported, infrastructure-building jobs. He’d lead us together into a stronger future. Instead his eloquence has left him, his voice thoroughly talked-over. The American public is left standing around stammering and nervous as irrational fear-mongers launch witch-hunts–Which should we burn? Well, let’s start with the public school teachers, and in them the staunchest remaining strand in American labor. They work for the commonweal, but not well enough. And then there’s healthcare for the poor, and support for the unemployed. We’ll start with these targets, and hope they suffice. But stay in fear, Americans, because if they don’t…

Days after the Debt-Ceiling showdown, the stock market began to plunge, and President BO came out with a speech that sought to help. But alas, rather than offering a non-material narrative of shared sacrifice, and communal achievement, he talked about “limits,” budget-cutting “super committees” etc. In other words, the narrative of the opponent.

I sanguinely maintain that despite appearances, Americans are not standing over a drying-out waterhole, but instead are really on the shore (as I am this week) of a giant, benign freshwater sea–they just don’t see it, which is where a good alternative narrative helps. I fear that unless we get across a narrative of nurturing compassion for the common cause, the ethos of privation and aggression will lead us down the old bloody pathways of Homo habilis in the Great Rift Valley

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