I’m reading the New York Times this morning with coffee and the winter sun shining in my apartment windows. I’m gripped by the power of writing, and the power of those written about to shape out national narrative, to shape our human narrative, to shape the world.
In the New York Times today there was an article about calculated erasure of African history pre-colonialism (“History the Slaveholders Wanted Us to Forget” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.). In it, Gates, an African American, describes growing up in the 50s, and how he and his peers wanted to distance themselves from African people. It was only when European colonies in Africa began becoming their own independent states in the 60s that he realized that there was more to the story. That Africa had a history, pride, independence and its own stories to tell.
“Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that ideas about Africans and their supposed lack of history and culture were used to justify the enslavement of millions of Africans throughout the New World… what is surprising is that these ideas persisted well into the 20th century, among white and black Americans alike.”
In a sense, America and dominant powers in the world have always promoted “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Manipulating the story, having the power to shape the narrative, is a dangerous common practice. Today, we see erasure still happening, but in a new way, due to modern technology, globalization and social media.
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate the truth,” Russian Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov is quoted saying.
This makes sense in an age where we have the internet, and access to fact check and seek other opinions at the click of a button. Spreading fake news and seeking to persuade is no longer working, as we can always find other facts that side with what we want to believe on the internet. Instead, by creating a barrage of information and misinformation, we will perhaps slowly get tired of fighting against half truths, and if we are not careful we might stop fighting altogether and forget that there ever was a somewhat-truth to seek out.
Yesterday we went on an excursion to Western Kansas with my parents. The dominant narrative of the Midwest has been about dumb, unexciting farm people who are largely religious and can be manipulated by the conservative party into voting against their interests.
In “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America”, author Thomas Frank posits that the rise in populism with the 2016 election is not quite a new thing for America.
“For decades, Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting…. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawoof toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. ‘We are here,’ they scream, ‘to cut your taxes,” Frank writes.
Though much of the country has known for a long time that this paradox exists- poor and middle class voters supporting millionaires and billionaires in politics based on religious, not economic values, it still persists.
Frank continues in What’s the Matter with Kansas,
“The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.”
There is a certain rebellion that is happening in America, and the world, and it’s not the rebellion that I wanted to see. We have a populist rebellion taking place out of fear of erasure, but these fear is being manufactured by the “Wizard” behind the curtain, making all the white people in America feel that the Wicked Witch and is flying into America and going through Customs with the intent to destroy the tiny bit of pride (i.e. bigotry) that is left.
The people of the Midwest are a self deprecating people, and the fact that the rest of the US looks past them only makes them more proud of their homeland. To quote the Wizard of Oz, “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”
What’s at the base of the alt-right and the Trump agenda? Is it fear, lack of heart, or lack of education?
And who is the witch and who is the wizard in modern day America? Maybe we are just a country full of tin men, scarecrows and lions.
One of my favorite books is “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” by Gregory Maguire. In it, Maguire takes us through the history of the Wicked Witch of the West, told from her perspective. There are a lot of questions on what evil really is, and who defines it. In the book, the Wicked Witch is born with green skin, and is labeled as a sort of devil from birth on by those around her. She grows up with a hatred toward her, and in turn she takes on a terrorist narrative of destroying the system that she feels destroyed her before she ever had a chance to define herself.
“People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of,” (Gregory Maguire, Wicked).
The dominant narrative in the West that human beings are essentially wealth seeking and bellicose is something we take for granted in our politicians. Not only do we excuse their selfish interests, a lot of times we celebrate their sociopathic ways as “successful businessmen,” who don’t let emotion get “in the way”. What we forget is that this macho patriarchal culture makes our world less safe for everyone but them, by labeling people with green skin as Witches as soon as they are born, we create their identities before they have a chance to create their own.
When we talk about the “populist revolution” in America and other Western countries, we are not talking about the people on the ground. We are talking about the Wizard of Oz, far away in his castle- defining our narrative that we on the ground grab onto and run with.
“Where I’m from, we believe in all sorts of things that aren’t true… we call it history,” (Gregory Maguire, Wicked).
Photo Credit: https://cdn.theculturetrip.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/wizard-of-oz-original1.jpg