Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > "Yes, We Have No Narratives": A Great American Myth

Oct 2, 2013

"Yes, We Have No Narratives": A Great American Myth

tags: Ira Chernus,Iran,U.S. foreign policy,political narrative

"Dueling Narratives Over Iran - U.S. Relations." That New York Times headline jumped out at me and my heart skipped a beat. Was David Sanger, one of the nation's most respected foreign affairs journalists (who co-authored the story with Michael Schwirtz), really telling us that U.S. policy toward Iran depends on a contest between competing narratives?

This was a news story, not an opinion piece. An NYT reporter recently told me that the news staff at the Times is under strict orders to keep a clear distance between themselves and the opinion page staff. So it seemed Sanger was presenting the role of narrative as objective fact.

Of course narratives themselves are never merely objective accountings of fact. They always depend on interpretation. But it's a fact that interpretive narratives­­ -- what some call myths -- wield tremendous influence in policymaking.

It's also a fact that the mass news media rarely tell us how crucial narratives are. Indeed they rarely treat narratives as news at all. Even the best journalists generally treat policymaking as a simple matter of gathering information, analyzing it, and drawing rational (or irrational) conclusions. They'll tell us that different policymakers have different analyses and come to different conclusions. But they generally ignore the way preconceived narratives shape the whole process.

That's why I was so surprised and pleased to read this headline. For once, it promised, a major news source was going to put the spotlight on narrative in the public arena. I was about to get some facts about the different narratives that are competing for dominance in the United States and in Iran. Or so I thought.

Unfortunately, as I realized a second later, my surprise and pleasure were somewhat premature. Yes, I did get a story about the importance of political narratives, and that itself was rare good news. But my eye-to-brain connection had played a trick on me. I'm so accustomed to thinking about the role of narrative in American life that I see it even when it isn't there.

What the headline actually said was: "Dueling Narratives in Iran Over U.S. Relations."  The story was only about what's going on in Iran: Top officials there are dueling with each other about the stance their nation should take toward the U.S., and two competing factions each have their own narrative. There was not a word about dueling narratives here in the U.S.

Of course every news "story" is just that -- a narrative tale, an interpretation of the facts, though it presents itself as a mere recitation of facts. And every story has a moral.

Perhaps the Times editors thought the moral of this story was that there are actually competing opinions in the highest circles of Iranian politics. And they probably thought readers would find that surprising. The prevailing narrative in the U.S. mass media is that Iran is a bad-guy nation, an evildoer. And in America's mythic world evil nations are always, by definition, totalitarian nations where dissent just isn't permitted, much less dueling narratives. In that respect, this article did challenge the common view of Iran.

To what end, though? Dig a bit deeper, and a more telling moral appears. Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, made headlines by coming to the UN and seeming to offer an olive branch to the U.S. and its allies. On the nuclear issue -- the only issue that seems to count, as far as the U.S. mass media are concerned -- Rouhani "is widely believed to have the backing of the country’s supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to at least give negotiations a try," as this story notes.

But don't be fooled by all the good news, David Sanger and his colleague were warning. There are very powerful people in Iran who are trying their best to stop Rouhani and go back to the bad old days of pushing the U.S. - Iranian confrontation to the brink.

The Times story offered one and only one example: Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, "sought to assure conservative factions that Iran remained skeptical of Washington and would not rush headlong into a deal." “We never trust America 100 percent,” he said. "And, in the future, we will remain on the same path.” Araghchi and other "hard-liners among the Iranian leadership are watching warily and could try to derail an agreement."

And the anti-American trouble runs deeper than the leadership, the story tells us. When Rouhani returned to Teheran, a crowd of hard-liners surrounded his car, shouting, “Our people are awake and hate America!” The accompanying photo shows the melee and the bodyguards Rouhani needed (as the cut line explains).

Along with such ominous (though no doubt factual) reports, the story offered an equally factual list of issues that remain contentious between the U.S. and Iran. In the context, those served as more warnings that we should not yet break out the champagne and celebrate a new day in relations between the two nations. There are still plenty of reasons why the budding romance might fall apart before it ever gets a chance to blossom: "The dueling narratives [in Iran] underscored the complexity of any rapprochement between the two countries."

This one rather short story underscores the complexity of studying narratives in public affairs. It's an American narrative about competing narratives in Iran that reinforces the prevailing narrative about Iran in America: Iran is a dangerous place, a place full of unpredictable tensions where nothing is necessarily what it seems to be and anything can go wrong at any time.

Yet the story is really not complex enough, not by half. The half that's missing is the topic I naively hoped I was going to read about: The dueling narratives about Iran here in the United States. Whether you read it as a story about an ongoing battle or a budding romance (or both), it seems that only one partner is really doing anything. The other (that's America) is apparently a passive victim of circumstance, just waiting to see what happens. This sense of passivity is another staple of America's narrative life.

So is the myth that American policymakers don't have narratives shaping their perceptions and decisions. Only the bad guys, it seems, have such narratives. I suppose that's because narratives strike us as subjective products of bias and emotion, the kind of irrationality that can lead people to do evil. So it's a comforting part of the American narrative that our leaders make their decision based on facts and reason, not narratives. It's a story we Americans have been telling ourselves ever since the days of the 18th century Enlightenment, when we declared our independence and justified it by invoking the self-evident truths of reason.

Obviously there are, in fact, dueling narratives in America about Iran. There are more than just two (as, no doubt, there are also more than just two in Iran). Sometimes we do get news stories about the spectrum of competing opinions on the Iran issue among U.S. policymakers, though not as often as we used to. What I've never seen is a story about how those opinions flow from and create competing narratives.

And I'm not sure whether it's more funny or sad that this story about Iranian narratives shows how easy it would be to write a companion piece on America. Virtually every sentence describing or quoting Iranian hard-liners and moderates could be used, almost verbatim, to do the same for American hard-liners and moderates.

To note just one example: When Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif was asked why crowds are chanting "hate America!" he said, "The Iranian people hated American policies, not the American people." For decades, it has been de rigueur for American leaders to insist that we never hate the people of any nation, even one we may be attacking and bombing. Surely, if we do some day attack Iran, we will be told that we hate Iran's policies (and probably its leaders) but definitely not its people.

The Times story does include one brief allusion to the U.S. as an active participant in the relationship. And it points up, indirectly, the parallel between the two nations:

"Susan Rice, the national security adviser, said sanctions would remain until the United States and its allies were convinced Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons. But like Mr. Zarif, she did not discuss how a lifting of sanctions could be conducted or how much of its nuclear infrastructure Iran would have to dismantle."

Yet there was no suggestion that Rice, or anyone in America, has a narrative about Iran.

As long as the myth of America as a land without political myths holds sway, we won't get the news we really need -- a factual story about two duels of narratives, in two very different countries, which mirror each other in many ways and interact to create a whole new set of constantly shifting narratives.

Until that story is widely known, we won't have a really well-informed national conversation about U.S. policy toward Iran. But I guess we'll have to wait a long while for a journalist as prominent as David Sanger and a source as eminent as the New York Times to bring us that narrative.


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