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Explanations, Narrative and Propaganda
by Bruce Newman
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If I ask you for an explanation it means I want you to make something clear, to smooth out the rough spots in my understanding. A good mechanic can smooth out your understanding of what’s wrong with your car. Any decent teacher does this with whatever subject they are teaching. In fact the entomology of “explain” means to make level or flatten out. So an explanation is supposed to leave us on level mental ground where before our understanding encountered obstacles.

When my kids did something wrong I asked them for an explanation. Generally, if they were telling the truth, the explanation would be short and simple. If they were lying or simply trying to justify themselves, the “explanation” was convoluted and took many twists and turns. In those cases what was supposed to explain, what was supposed to flatten things out for me, became manipulative. Instead of making level it dug a hole.

Last night Hurricane Hanna swept by. We’re no strangers to these storms here in North Carolina. I was here for Hurricane Fran and certainly don’t want to see any replays of that. But Hanna, depending on where you lived, was more of a nuisance storm than anything else. Here in Durham all we got was a lot of rain. But even east of here where the main problems were predicted to occur, there was nothing like the damage that hurricanes can potentially inflict.

I turned the television on at 11 pm. WRAL was, naturally, covering the storm. I don’t know how long they’d already been on. I came back at 12:30 am, ready to watch Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but hurricane coverage was still dragging on as if a major catastrophe was in the making. Within thirty minutes I heard enough explanation to know what was happening with the storm. But WRAL was determined to not only smooth out my understanding but to dynamite completely new mine shafts of boredom. They kept switching to some newscaster standing on Atlantic or Wrightsville Beach, buffeted by wind and rain in contrived drama that would make two females fighting with weaves pulled out look like Shakespearean acting. I waited for a while, muting the TV and reading, hoping Conan was merely delayed. At 2 am I turned it off with WRAL still acting as if they were covering 9/11.

My mother called this morning to see how we were because she said, from the news coverage she’d been watching, it sounded like the whole state was a disaster area. What she’d heard was the difference between explanation and digging a hole.

(In fairness to WRAL, I emailed them and asked them about this. They said they had a long standing tradition to serve the community as long as there was any possibility that the storm could be a problem for anyone. I thought that was a good response even though I still think they overdo it. But obviously it overrides my desire to watch a TV show if anyone is being helped.)

We just came through two political conventions that were short on explanation but long on bad theater and hole digging. Did you know that narrative, an account of events in a story-like manner, is a way of explanation? A good story, or parable, is a way of explaining. I wonder how many folks noticed that, despite the differences that Obama and McCain claim there are between them that they both use the same narrative background. They both, just as all the presidential candidates before them, try tapping into that concept of America as a leader of freedom in the world. This explanation has become cover for a lot of things America has done wrong. That’s why we tried transplanting democracy in an Islamic country without really thinking about how that would, or even if it could, work. As long as it is in the service of freedom, well, it becomes a justifying narrative that blinds where it is supposed to provide grounding for just purposes.

A parable as explanation can cause someone to understand or leave them in darkness. It all depends on the inward integrity of the individual. A lot of people say they want the truth but really only want you to confirm what they already think. If that’s how they really are inside, despite what their lips speak, parables only serve to further blind them. Jesus spoke a lot of parables. His own disciples didn’t always understand what He was getting at even though it was given to them to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. He let them know that a parable could work for or against you.

And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be? And he said, To you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand. – Luke 8: 9-10.

There are many explanations and parables given these days that few are questioning. We have only to look around us to see the damage such an attitude has wrought. When the narrative background has become something we’re so used to hearing that we simply absorb it unthinkingly, we’ve left the city limits of explanation and entered the realm of propaganda. People either absorb or reject propaganda based on what they already believe. But to the extent that one has accepted certain beliefs without really thinking them through, to that extent one doesn’t realize how silently and invisibly propaganda finds a home in him. Propaganda usually constitutes a partial truth where important facts are left out or make something false seem unimportant by comparison. Yet, propaganda could not succeed without the implicit permission of people allowing themselves to be manipulated by it.

“For propaganda to succeed, it must correspond to a need for propaganda on the individual’s part. One can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink; one cannot reach through propaganda those who do not need what it offers. The propagandee is by no means just an innocent victim.”

– Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

Propaganda: People died for your right to vote. (True, but there’s more to it than that. They usually died for things greater than that of which voting was only a part. These things are ignored.)

Reaction: (now based on guilt and partial information) I must not waste the lives given for my right to vote if I’m a responsible person.

Problem: What if there is no good choice for my vote?

Propaganda only stimulates you to action based on a narrative which, if you accept unthinkingly, causes you to act based on the guilt you’ll feel for not acting. How can any society have a healthy political system dominated by such a beggarly spirit? Yet this is what politicians largely depend on.

Alternative: Step outside the narrative, the system of information being woven for you as a cozy and comfortable frame of reference. That may be easier said than done based on the extent to which you’ve become dependent on the narrative explanation. But if you do it, you free yourself from the guilt and manipulations inherent in this lazy method. And make no mistake about it, mental and spiritual laziness is very much involved in this.

Example: Jesus Christ. He was always outside the system of propaganda in which they repeatedly tried to trap Him. (Which of you convicts Me of sin? – Jn. 8:46) He was the supreme outsider. And yet He was always inside God’s will.

This world has an explanation and narrative that it is always repeating through its politics, entertainment, schools and many other avenues. Since we have to live in this world for now the only method of sanity is to be in the world but not of it. (I see now that I must write about the meaning of that word “of”. Little word, big meaning.)

If we can ever truthfully say the following with Christ, we are in the best position to resist false narrative and propaganda.

Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world comes, and has nothing in me. – Jn. 14:30

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