Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > The “Fiscal Cliff” and THE SCANDAL

Nov 13, 2012

The “Fiscal Cliff” and THE SCANDAL


David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell in 2011. Credit: Flickr/U.S. Navy.

Robert Rubin, former secretary of the Treasury, writes in the New York Times: “Now that the election is over, Washington’s attention is consumed by the looming combination of automatic spending cuts and tax increases known as ‘the fiscal cliff.’” 

“Consumed”?  Excuse me, but I just checked the websites of the Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, Fox News, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Every one of them had the same lead story -- and it was not “the fiscal cliff.” 

By now, of course, you know what it was. Everybody knows: THE SCANDAL WIDENS! 

If Robert Rubin had written that some people in Washington are giving some attention to the “the looming ‘fiscal cliff,’” he might have been correct. In Washington they’re sort of forced to deal with such wonkish stuff, at least part of the time.

But outside Washington the “fiscal cliff’ must be so far eclipsed by THE SCANDAL that hardly anyone can see the “cliff” at all, much less see it looming ominously just ahead. Even in Washington, the news sources suggest, the “cliff” is taking a distinctly back seat to THE SCANDAL.

The news media are once again showing their depressing penchant for sensationalism. But there’s no point in complaining. It would as useful as complaining about the weather. Like Hurricane Sandy, THE SCANDAL will dominate the headlines until it runs its natural course and plays itself out.

If you want to know why, try this little thought experiment. Imagine that you are a Hollywood screenwriter hoping to pen the next box-office blockbuster. You’ve been offered two very different projects.

One is a film about the president and Congressional leaders negotiating to avoid a financial catastrophe. The other is about the nation’s two most prominent generals, one head of the CIA, caught in some mysterious secret relationships with two attractive younger women, both married, one a wealthy socialite and the other a Harvard-trained expert on terrorism.   

No-brainer, right? That second project sounds like something that could only happen in a Hollywood movie, not in real life -- something manufactured in “the dream factory,” full of larger than life characters freighted with complex symbolic meanings, doing things that pack a powerful emotional punch.

In short, like any good movie, THE SCANDAL has all the qualities we associate with myth. Which is precisely why it has eclipsed what may be the most important political negotiations in decades.

Of course it’s the very real newsroom editors, not some hypothetical Hollywood writer, who are faced with the choice. Their job is to deliver audiences to advertisers. And what audiences want from their news is not so much accurate facts or penetrating logical analyses as gripping tales, the kind that would make good movies. So that’s what the editors give them. Why do you think we call them news “stories”?  

No doubt it’s significant that this particular story is loaded with sex appeal. I’ve read plenty of Freud (once even taught a course on him), so I could offer some opinions on why sex sells. But I’ll demur.

The larger and more important point is the power of narrative to shape our perceptions of public events. (I was going to say “public affairs,” but that seems a poor choice of words here.) Indeed, it’s may be fair to say that events don’t become public -- at least don’t take on public significance -- until they are represented in narrative form. And the more mythic those narratives are, the more public attention they get.

In this case, as so often, it’s all most unfortunate. THE SCANDAL will soon be forgotten, as most scandals are, and have no lasting impact on the nation. But the negotiations to avoid going over “the cliff” will have a huge and lasting impact on all of us. The fate of Medicare and Medicaid, and perhaps Social Security too, hangs in the balance.

There’s an organized movement to stop President Obama from agreeing to cuts in those entitlement programs. That movement might have some success if it can muster broad public support. Will the public ever know about it? I wonder. It is getting a bit of news coverage. It’s even featured on the WaPo website -- buried beneath six (6) stories about THE SCANDAL!

As I said, there’s no use complaining about it. But we can use THE SCANDAL as a very useful reminder that we can’t understand American public life -- and certainly not American political life -- without giving serious attention to its mythic dimension.

I suppose what those opponents of cuts to entitlements need now is a good myth. Something about “Grandma,” perhaps? Remember those fictional “death panels”? But, as THE SCANDAL reminds us, mythic tales can be full of empirically true facts.

An empirically true, but emotionally powerful, story about what will happen to “Grandma” if her Medicare is cut might be just the thing right now -- once THE SCANDAL fades from the front page of public memory. Let’s just hope it fades before “Grandma,” and all of us, go over “the cliff.” 

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