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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Stories and the realities they create

Particularly in times of fear and confusion, we want stories; pointless violence like the bombs at the Boston Marathon makes us want stories that will explain why--even while many of us feel that any explanation the bombers could give would not be, literally or figuratively, a reason.  (I'll admit that I had problems with language in that last sentence:  which was a reason, which an explanation?  Let's just say that the explanation that made sense to the bombers would not seem reasonable to us.)  One of Obama's gifts as president, when he isn't being hamstrung by a Congress that has neither reasons nor explanations for their failure to pass gun control legislation, is to be storyteller-in-chief.  It's his job to create the narratives that go some small distance toward restoring order and confidence:  to tell the bombers that they will be caught, to tell the victims that they will run again, to assert the triumph of goodness and hope and will.

But even while we're hungry for this narrative we're also often disgusted with what that media offers us for stories.  Novel Prize-winner Daniel Kahnemann notes that the prevalence of stories about bird flu or child abductions--stories that make us frightened--set up what he calls "availability cascades."  That is, by over-emphasizing some threats, the media nudge us to take actions that are not really in our best interests.  Michael Cohen, writing in The Guardian, pointed to a crucial disconnection between locking down Boston for a day and Congress's failure to pass laws restricting the sale of guns without more thorough background checks:

"The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. The pregnant Breshauna Jackson was killed in Dallas, allegedly by her boyfriend. In Richmond, California, James Tucker III was shot and killed while riding his bicycle – assailants unknown. Nigel Hardy, a 13-year-old boy in Palmdale, California, who was being bullied in school, took his own life. He used the gun that his father kept at home. And in Brooklyn, New York, an off-duty police officer used her department-issued Glock 9mm handgun to kill herself, her boyfriend and her one-year old child.

"At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers that ended on Friday evening, 38 more Americans – with little fanfare – died from gun violence. One was a 22-year old resident of Boston. They are a tiny percentage of the 3,531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months – a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 and is one fewer than the number of US soldiers who lost their lives in combat operations in Iraq. Yet, none of this daily violence was considered urgent enough to motivate Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers."  (You can find a link to Cohen's essay below.)


 Here's my own recent favourite from last week.  CBC has been reporting 11 cases of a new bird flu in China, even though human-to-human transmission hasn't yet occurred.  At the same time, the media doesn't tell us that, world wide, approximately 2,740 people die in automobile accidents every day--for a total of over a million a year.  Our media and our leaders have clearly figured out that prompting us to be fearful helps their ratings or their election chances, but they're not quite willing to share the stories that might undermine our entire way of life, whether those stories are about guns or cars. Yet the stories they tell profoundly shape the way we feel about our lives and our world, perhaps because a sense of physical security is a cornerstone of our sense of well-being.

Stories make powerful explanations.  We can watch the fascinating narrative arc while at the same time waiting for the denoument that ties causes to effects.  They explain our world.  Yet at the same time, our confidence in stories as agents of explanation is perhaps misplaced. You've done it:  a friend or a family member does something that you find upsetting, puzzling, or hurtful.  So you make a story about it, linking it to other events or comments, only to find it's the wrong story.  It wasn't an insult; it was embarrassment.  They weren't avoiding you; they were trying to give you space. 

For my exam period entertainment, I've been reading a book of essays by Tony Judt called The Memory Chalet.  The essays arose from his middle-of-the-night conversations with his memory while he was in the later stages of ALS.  Unable to write or type, he would use a chalet that was part of fond childhood memories to help him construct fairly brief essays--he calls them feuilletons--that he would laboriously speak to his emanuenses in the morning.  In one of these, he admits that he thought he knew America:

"For West Europeans raised in the 1950s, "America" was Bing Crosby, Hopalong Cassidy, and overvalued dollars flowing copiously from the plain pants pockets of midwestern tourists.  By the 1970s the image had shifted away from the cowboy West to the Manhattan Canyons of Lieutenant Kojak.  My generation enthusiastically replaced Bing with Elvis, and Elvis with Motown and the Beach Boys; but we had not the slightest idea what Memphis or Detroit--or southern California for that matter--actually looked like" (158).

Similarly, Judt certainly had an illustrious career as an historian both in England and in the United States, but it wasn't until he had a midlife crisis that prompted him to learn Czech that he realized how partial his understanding of European history--one that ignored Eastern Europe--had been.  (I think I'll learn a language for my next midlife crisis.  It sounds at least more useful than a car or an affair.)

Judt's experience is not exactly a surprise.  Anyone who deals with ideas knows that any coherent narrative that maintains enough interest to grab a reader's attention is going to be problematic.  Historian Hayden White calls this the Content of the Form, a book of groundbreaking essays on history and historiography.  White argues that our expectation of a narrative arc determines what events we think are appropriate for history.  Good historical stories have heroes and villains, battles and triumphs or defeats.  The slow attempt, recorded by the French Annales school, to figure out how thickly to plant wheat and how heavily to lay on the cow manure in order to maximize one's crop doesn't make for captivating reading. But that struggle probably influences our contemporary lives more than, say, the Battle of Agincourt.

Yet I've discovered of late that even stories about institutions inadvertently create an inaccurate portrait.  This has happened of late at U of R.  The stories about IPAC finances have put the university's attempts to develop carbon capture and storage capacity on the front pages of the Leader Post and on the CBC news.  Ditto the story about how Engineering solved a $1.3 million shortfall.  At the same time, however, there were some quieter stories happening elsewhere that suggested that members of the university were quietly working to sustain the environment and develop links with the community.  For example, the university has community gardening projects, called "The Edible Campus,"  that make a profound difference in the community.  Last year, the gardens behind the library, outside the Language Institute, and at FNUC donated 1,500 pounds of fresh food to Carmichael Outreach.  At the same time, "Fruit for Thought," a student-led effort that evolved out of Katherine Arbuthnott's Psychology of the Environment class, harvested 30 trees and gathered 3,000 pounds of fruit, some of which went to the Regina Food Bank.  These two organizations have been rewarded for their efforts:  the Community Gardens received a Farm Credit Corporation Regina Spirit Fund Award, and Fruit for Thought was given a SaskPower Waste Minimization Award.  The Edible Campus (which includes these two projects) was given a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development in Saskatchewan Award for "contributing to creating and sustaining awareness of sustainable food practices in Saskatchewan."

On another front, RPIRG and members of the Faculty of Arts have been instrumental in the creation of the Public Pastures-Public Interest group which spearheaded the very productive Pastures Forum that I wrote about on November 30.  This effort has caught the attention of Margaret Atwood, who, along with her husband, Graeme Gibson, will be visiting the community pastures between June 24 and June 27 "to draw attention to the global significance of conservation programming and bird habitat at risk on federal community pastures now being transferred to Saskatchewan."  She will be tweeting about the experience to her 392,000 followers, attempting to raise awareness about these lands that are at risk.  And, apropros of the U of R's investment in Carbon Capture and Storage Technology, these pastures capture 2.5 times the carbon of any storage technology under development.  And they're already there, already playing an important role in protecting species, in rural ecosystems and in rural economy by providing work for pasture managers and managed grazing for ranchers.  

So what do we do about the fact that we are inclined to tell and trumpet the stories of IPAC and the Faculty of Engineering, when there are other, quieter stories of success and dedication?  Is it that we can't help following the big money?  Does money control more than we think?  Does it decide which stories are important?

Last Saturday night, the Saskatchewan Book Awards had its gala celebrating its twenty years and recognizing writers and publishers across the province.  Each of the writers who won awards had stories to tell about the people and the communities that supported them, about the curiosity that drove them, about the rewards (rarely financial) of the work they do.  For each of those stories, there were four or five others that any of the nominees might have told.  In turn, what we celebrated on Saturday night is the enormous and exciting variety of stories that sustain a culture. 


 You can find Cohen's essay in The Guardian here: http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/21/boston-marathon-bombs-us-gun-law

Here's the link to the Public Pastures website: http://pfrapastureposts.wordpress.com/about/who-we-are/ 

 Here's a link to my earlier post, "Time and the Land" about the Pastures Forum: http://blueduets.blogspot.ca/2012/11/time-and-land.html

 Here is a link to the SBA web page, which will help you follow the upcoming readings: http://www.bookawards.sk.ca/index.php
There will be a reading over lunch at the Legislate Library on May 8.  Just in case it's an incentive, the library provides lunch.  Candace Savage will be one of the speakers.  I'll post updates on FB to keep you informed.

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