by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I study political narrative for a living (for instance in books like this), and while I agree with the reader who saw The King's Speech that narratives obviously do take hold and drive coverage of events like those in Egypt, I disagree that this has been a very noticeable problem in this case – either on the Dish or on CNN, which I’ve been relying on for TV coverage. If anything, the story as it’s being told at the moment lacks narrative “oomph”: the protestors are consistently identified just as protestors (which they clearly are), not “freedom fighters” or “the pro-democracy movement” or with other such loaded terms, and we’re constantly reminded of the ambiguities of Mubarak’s rule and the uncertainty over what might follow it.

Although not many people who favor freedom and political rights are unhappy to see a dictator in trouble, there’s remarkably little Hollywood-style cheerleading for the “good guys” to win, or even clarity about who they might be. (I am listening to a CNN reporter at this moment wondering aloud which side the army is on, and quoting protestors with different views about this. That kind of ambiguity is just not what we’d see in a feel-good Hollywood film.)

All this may just be happenstance, and in another case, where the facts are different, the ready-made narrative might well overwhelm the reality on the ground. We’ve seen that happen many times. But I think your other reader also overlooks two further points.

First, we can’t avoid narratives – they’re the basic structure of how human beings think. Without narrative, all we have is chaos. And second, it’s not necessarily the case that the first narrative imposed on fast-breaking events will stick. Even when powerful agencies are pushing a particular storyline, as the Bush Administration did in claiming that “freedom” (as opposed to Shi’ite client rule) had been brought to Iraq, the reality may be different enough that most people won’t buy it. And some narratives prove to be fluid, dynamic, and open to fairly rapid revision as events unfold.  Whatever we make of developments in Egypt today, there’s no reason to assume we’ll still be seeing them through the same framework a year or two from now, or even a week or two from now.

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