MONDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2023
Memphis Storyline: A new arrival on the front blew Memphis off the map.
The new arrival on the front was a large balloon. As it drifted from the west toward the east, it became the topic of general conversation and predictable behaviors emerged.
For starters, the new arrival blew talk of Memphis away. Peter Baker describes the general state of play at the start of an analysis piece in this morning's New York Times:
BAKER (2/6/23): President Biden probably will not put it quite this way when he gets up before Congress to address the nation this week, but the state of America’s union is disunion. To see that, he will need only turn around to find a Republican House speaker seated behind him, determined to block his every move.
So Mr. Biden’s message of unity, a hard sell already during his first two years in office, may prove even more out of sync on Tuesday night as he delivers his first State of the Union address of this new era of divided government...
The state of the union is disunion? Plainly, that's an accurate statement—and as an obvious part of the package, the state of the nation's "public discourse" is full-blown Storyline.
Meanwhile, so strange! Even as this new arrival—this large balloon—was blown from the skies and dumped in the sea, a new arrival at the New York Times was still discussing Memphis!
This new arrival was David French. In his debut piece as a regular Opinion Columnist, French was so far behind the times that he was still discussing "fatal police violence" in this, the era of the very large balloon.
French was days behind the times. He started his column like this:
FRENCH (2/6/23): On Wednesday, the city of Memphis remembered the life of Tyre Nichols, a young man who was beaten by at least five Memphis police officers and died three days later. Stories like this are terrible, they’re relentless, and they renew one of the most contentious debates in the nation: Are there deep and systemic problems with the American police?
How we answer that question isn’t based solely on personal experience or even available data. It often reflects a massive partisan divide...
Quickly, and to his credit, French took his column meta. He cited the "massive partisan divide" to which Baker also refers—and as he continued, he described the way this massive divide has helped shape public discussion concerning what happened in Memphis and concerning American police.
Let it be said that, in his debut, Franch identified his own political leanings. This is the political background from which his helpful column emerges:
FRENCH: Before I go further, let me put my own partisan cards on the table. I’m a conservative independent. I left the Republican Party in 2016, not because I abandoned my conservatism but rather because I applied it. A party helmed by Donald Trump no longer reflected either the character or the ideology of the conservatism I believed in...
French had been a lifelong Republican. At this site, we've never voted for a Republican. That said, we think French has the right idea in the way he has structured his debut column, though we also think he makes one very large basic error.
In his column, French discusses the way our "massive partisan divide" shapes our discussions of events like the recent events in Memphis. He discusses "Storyline" without ever using that word:
FRENCH (continuing directly): Every year Gallup releases a survey that measures public confidence in a variety of American institutions, including the police. In 2022, no institution (aside from the presidency) reflected a greater partisan trust gap than the police. A full 67 percent of Republicans expressed confidence in the police, versus only 28 percent of Democrats.
Why is that gap so large? While I try to avoid simple explanations for complex social phenomena, there is one part of the answer that I believe receives insufficient attention: Our partisanship tends to affect our reasoning, influencing our assessments of institutions regardless of the specifics of any particular case.
Here’s what I mean. The instant that a person or an institution becomes closely identified with one political “tribe,” members of that tribe become reflexively protective and are inclined to write off scandals as “isolated” or the work of “a few bad apples.”
Conversely, the instant an institution is perceived as part of an opposing political tribe, the opposite instinct kicks in: We’re far more likely to see each individual scandal as evidence of systemic malice or corruption, further proof that the other side is just as bad as we already believed.
David French gets it right! When we divide ourselves into "tribes," he says we tend to abandon the practices normally associated with "reasoning."
Instead, we become extremely selective in the way we pick and choose our facts—in the way we formulate our basic assessments.
We say good things about the groups affiliated with our own "political tribe." We say bad things about the groups who aren't.
We toss away all other facts, thereby producing a Perfect Story about the event in question. Basically, members of rival political tribes descend into the promulgation of the unhelpful product we've long called Storyline.
We humans! Do we really offer selective facts as "proof that the other side is just as bad as we already believed?"
Plainly, David French gets it right in that (anthropological) observation—and it's very, very, very hard for a nation to function that way.
Experts say that this is the way our imperfect brains are wired. We assume that those experts are right, but it's obvious that our failing republic is now deeply involved in this culture of Storyline.
French goes on to say that he has changed his basic view of "American police." He seems to say that he was once inclined, on a tribal basis, to assume the best about the conduct and culture of that important institution, of those important public officials.
He explicitly says that he has now "changed his mind." Where he once believed that unjustifiable police violence was the work of "some bad apples," he now believes that there is a "systemic problem" revealed by events like those in Memphis.
Personally, we think French makes an error in seeming to think that he has to choose between those two alternatives. That said, in changing his mind, he's found a way to go against his initial tribal instincts.
Quite sensibly, he suggests that we all should learn to "fight past our partisanship to become truly curious about the truth." That strikes us as extremely good advice, though we also think that French's error lurks.
Tomorrow, we'll continue to discuss French's debut piece—and we'll start to discuss what happened in Memphis, a very old piece of news.
Alas! As a balloon blew across the land, what happened in Memphis quickly turned into yesterday's news.
In the clatter which poses as our national discourse, Memphis had blown Stormy Daniels off the map. Now, a very large, very scary balloon had blown Memphis away.
This is the way our discourse work in these most trivial of times. French offers superb advice in his debut, though we very strongly believe that he does make that one mistake.
Tomorrow: Memphis and Storyline