The Anti-Narrative

Jun 12, 2019

This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

In the last several posts, we have been discussing various narratives that might appeal to voters to provide a sense of the U.S. role in international affairs. However, at the last meeting of the study group on U.S. global engagement, we also tackled the reality that among the electorate, especially since the 2016 election, there is a counter-narrative at play. This is something that Professor Tatiana Serafin, in particular, has been charting in her work on American journalism and its impact on the public.

What might be termed the "anti-narrative" has two main planks.

The first is an across-the-board distrust of the media. Reporting is to be distrusted, and facts or events that clash with personal feelings and preferences are to be considered as "fake news." This trend is boosted by the greater ease given new technologies to insert news forgeries into the media bloodstream or an end-justifies-the-means approach to information (such as recycling footage from unrelated events if a compelling image is lacking). The end result, as David Graham points out, is: "More than making people believe false things, the rise of fake news is making it harder for people to see the truth."

The second is the "death of expertise." The first manifestation of this is to posit that anyone's opinion is as good as the next. But a second trend is to assume that there is no such thing as a dispassionate, analytic assessment—that all judgments are based on the expectation of personal gain. In other words, an "expert" who argues for a particular policy option (intervention in a conflict, a trade arrangement, etc.) is doing so because he or she expects to benefit from that result or is being paid by interests to put his or her intellectual firepower behind that option. Again, scandals about pay-for-play think tank programs and beneficial relationships between interest groups and public intellectuals helps to erode the impartial credibility of the expert community—and this is manifested by the immediate response, on Twitter, to expert opinions with which listeners disagree to proclaim that the expert in question must be on the "payroll" (of the Koch brothers, George Soros, etc.).

So the combination of the two is to produce a narrative that U.S. foreign policy is a game of manipulation—and that the media and expert communities, rather than helping to educate voters, are part of that process of manipulation. The logical extension is that ignorance is a preferable condition, and that expertise is a liability, rather than an enhancement.

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