The art of storytelling in times of war

by Pål Steigan English translation by Anne Merethe Erstad

“…In 1990 a young girl offered a heart wrenching testimony to how Iraqi soldiers had forced their way into a maternity ward in Kuwait, how they’d destroyed the islolettes and left newborn and premature infants to die. She called herself Nayira. Her testimony made a tremendous impression and it had a huge emotionally impact in the first Gulf War against Iraq. The problem was, though: the story was a hoax. Nayira was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to USA. Her testimony was produced by a PR agency, and what she told had no root in reality…” Wikipedia.

This story has everything. Young, crying girl, premature infants, barbarian soldiers. As Frank Zappa would have said: It is carefully designed to suck the twelve year old listeners into our camp.
As it turned out, the PR agency Hill & Knowlton, the oldest PR firm in the world, had created the manuscript, directed, styled and rehearsed the girl prior to her avowal. The testimony was designed to make Christian pacifists support the war against Iraq. (Hill & Knowlton used to work for the tobacco industry to undermine research proving damages caused by smoking. Currently they’re assigned by oil companies to undermine criticism of fracking and the dangers involved.)
A far more prominent case is of course the US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation in the UN Security Council, where he submitted false “evidence” of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. That too, was a fraud from one end to the other, but was reported by all major media more or less as the holy gospel.
This concerns the art of storytelling in war. Why are such stories important? Well, because our minds need stories to make sense of the world, to wrap our head around it. Facts and reasoning are important, but not enough. They must be attached to stories in order to work. Actually, our brain tends to reject facts and arguments that don’t reason with the story we believe in.

The story of Sybaris

In Ancient times, there were two Greek cities in southern Italy, at the “sole of the boot”. One was Crotone, the other named Sybaris. They were rivals. They were both founded around 700 years before Common Era. Sybaris amassed great wealth due to its fertile farming land as well as extensive sea commerce in the Mediterranean, and in Greece it became famous – or rather – infamous for excessive luxury and pleasures. The word sybarite, which still exists, became a byword for a hedonist; a person indulging excessive luxury. In 510 the city was attacked and looted by Crotone troops. Most likely Crotone used the myths regarding Sybaris to justify the attack. The word sybarite has survived as a negative – a story of the losers.
But there is another story to be found about Sybaris. It tells that the people in this city lived a good life and were not belligerent. What brought prestige in this city was to create an exceptionally tasty meal, and the wealthiest people rivaled among themselves to hire the best cooks. The fact that this story has not survived in the same way goes to show how powerful a negative story can be.

Napoleon wasn’t short

To most people in our cultural area and in my generation a number of negative images pop up in their mind when they think about Napoleon Bonaparte. One of them is the conception of him as a short man. But he wasn’t. Compared to the average height for men of his time, he’s supposed to have been of normal height, but when we think of him as a tiny little guy, it’s because British propaganda described him so – 200 years ago. This was a part of the story The British Empire used in its fight against their arch enemy. And again, it has proved highly viable.

Its how the brain works

There are numerous similar stories which have had little or no root in reality. But they have lingered still, because they’re imprinted in the collective memory. Of course one could say (and rightly so) this is because history is written by the victors. But there is another reason as well. Namely the fact that our minds need stories in order to make sense of a complex and difficult world.
Ever since olden times, people have gathered around the fireplace, telling each other stories. Tales of the origins of the family, the tribe, the clan – the people. There have been stories about heroes and villains, of golden ages and times of hardship – and everything else. But the stories have provided more than entertainment to pass the time. They have played a part in keeping people together, motivate and keeping up the standards, especially in hard times.
George P. Lackoff is an American scientist, a so called cognitive linguist. He claims that stories and metaphors are essential to the way we think and act. A conceptual metaphor isn’t just the use of a language tool in communication; it also molds the way we think and act. In the book Metaphors We Live By(1980) he and Mark Johnson describes how our everyday language is filled with metaphors we often don’t even notice.
Lakoff has also developed the concept of the embodied mind: that the brain depends on how the rest of the body works. He argues that our concepts, even the most analytical ones, are far from as crystal clear and categorical as we like to think. On the contrary; they are as complex and ambiguous as the rest of our body. «We are neural beings. Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything — only what our embodied brains permit.”
According to Lakoff this has political implications. He says that the division between liberals and conservatives in USA is caused not only by politics, but by the metaphors that influence their minds. Both parties imagine the relationship between the state and the people within the frame of a parent-child metaphor. The conservative image is that of the strict parent (the father) raising the children (the people) to be independent, to fend for themselves. Among the liberals, it is the caring parent who makes sure the essentially good children are shielded from the world’s harsh and hurting ways.
The USA has some powerful stories that contribute to constitute the American identity and their conception of themselves. Just consider the strong impact of the word freedom in American rhetoric. Or all the stories featuring “rags to riches”: the idea that USA is the country where the shoe polishing boy can become a billionaire. In fact, this is basically another version of the Cinderella stories, which are very old and can be found in numerous versions in many cultures. In the real USA, social mobility is far less than for instance in Norway. But it doesn’t matter as long as most Americans, and quite a few Norwegians, believe the opposite.

The part of the dream machine

In this perspective, Hollywood isn’t merely an entertainment industry, but a collective dream machine working to sustain a self-perception and a storytelling that has expired by date in the real world, but still contributes to uphold society and faith in the future.
When the Berlin Wall fell, it turned out that millions of people “behind the Iron Curtain” had believed in these stories and wanted to be part of the American dream they’d had a glimpse of in the movies. This longing for the land of glory is essential for instance in the movie “L’America” (1994) by Gianni Amelio. It’s about Albanians following this very dream only to end up in a not very glorious country.
I remember encountering the opposite of this idea in what was then the socialist (and authoritarian) Albania. I happened to mention that in Norway, it was common for workers to own a car. I was abruptly interrupted by a socialist party commissar who claimed I was lying; this could not be, because workers in the West were oppressed and exploited. I tried to explain that the two things weren’t necessarily contradictive. But he refused to believe me. He had bought into the authorities’ story of The West. But below surface, beyond the reach of the party propaganda, the negation of the negation was alive. There existed, not only the idea that The West was a good place, but that everything in The West was at least as good as portrayed in the most glorified Hollywood movies.

Putin’s malice

Not many hours had passed after the Malaysia Airlines MH17 had been shot down when the major mass media determined the guilty party:
There was no evidence proving that Russia had shot down the plane, and today not even Barack Obama says that it was Russia or Russian speaking rebels who shot down the airplane. Notice what he said on this topic during the G20 summit in Australia:

We’re leading in dealing with Ebola in West Africa and in opposing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine — which is a threat to the world, as we saw in the appalling shoot-down of MH17, a tragedy that took so many innocent lives, among them your fellow citizens.

Obama doesn’t explicitly say that Russia shot down the airplane, probably because he knows it isn’t true. But he trusts that his audience already has this story imprinted on their mental hard discs, and he needs only imply it.
This goes to show how important the battle of the story is, even in modern warfare. Wars are determined by weapons and relative strength, yes, but without stories they still don’t work. That is why the battle of the story is also a battle of a good first impression, which story will lodge in people’s minds. You don’t get many chances to make a good first impression. When accomplished, it doesn’t matter that much whether factual investigations a year later should show something else.

Democrats who don’t see fascists

As such, the whole Ukrainian Maidan revolution was a Hollywood story. According to this story it was all about freedom loving young people rebelling against oligarchs and corruption, against an inhuman dictator. That the rebellion was in fact financed by some of the wealthiest oligarchs and the CIA, and that the oligarchs’ power as well as the corruption has, if anything, increased since the rebellion, doesn’t matter much for everyone who has bought into the story of Euro Maidan. I debate this with people who consider themselves democrats, and socialists, even – and they probably are – but they refuse to acknowledge the fascist’s strong position in Ukraine, even when they march with SS runes and hail architects of mass murders like Stepan Bandera.

The battle of the stories

In this blog I constantly try to go behind the authorities’ stories and undermine them. I do it partly because the stories are mendacious, but also because they are dangerous. Such stories can make people kill each other. The story of “Gaddafi who would kill his people” made Christian pacifists demand bombing in Libya. The story was a lie, which has been proven time and again, but it doesn’t help much as long as people believe in it.
My job is to do my very best to puncture the tales of the empire, but also, in time, to enhance alternative stories. Because the political battle cannot be won simply by presenting the best arguments. You also need the best stories.


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tezla valve
tezla valve
May 16, 2016 3:37 PM

I read Lakov’s “Metaphors We Live By” many moons ago. I found it to be a fascinating book, suitable for the layman. The writer William Burroughs claimed “Language is a virus” ie. it’s a parasite that replicates in the human mind, then infects others through various media. To me, it seems like metaphors make up the underlying reproductive structure of language (in comparison to nucleic acids, which control biological reproduction.) Lakov’s book asserts that new metaphors can’t be created in isolation, but must bear a ‘family resemblance’ to pre-existing metaphors (otherwise they are ‘unfit’ and fail to make sense/survive.) It seems like ‘canon’ or ‘paradigm’ ways of thinking are inevitable. The ‘Establishment’ seem obsessed with control and mind control methods (‘government’ literally means ‘mind control’), so it’s probably best to have some understanding of these things, as those who manipulate language can manipulate our minds (which is only internalised language.)… Read more »

Sam Nelson (@Sam194275)
Sam Nelson (@Sam194275)
May 15, 2016 8:30 PM

And then there is the “Jews Holocaust” story, the biggest, most racist, most idiotic for its lack of real evidence and the inability of it to have ever happened, story, ever told. One heck of a money maker for the Rothschild’s and their Jewish Mafia though, and, that’s all that matters to the world’s paid for and mostly white Politicians, and, the paid for, mostly white, educational systems in the world. This lie, the jews holocaust lie, has turned the world over to the Rothschild and their Jewish Mafia so that now there will have to be a slaughter of humanity to get us lose from them. There is no lie ever told that has had nearly as much injustice a part of it as is this jews lie of a holocaust. Even today, story tellers of ridiculousness, called “survivors” are still making their fortune from the lie, while little… Read more »

May 15, 2016 10:29 PM

You smell like Hasbara.

Jennifer Hor
Jennifer Hor
May 16, 2016 12:48 AM

There is a difference between Israel exploiting the Shoah for its own propaganda mill to justify killing Palestinians, and idiocy denying that the Shoah ever occurred.
Perhaps you ought to visit Ukraine and talk to the fascists about their Bandera worship, why Stepan Bandera is such a hero to them. They’ll only be too glad to have a sympathetic ear such as yours.

May 13, 2016 3:40 PM

That was excellent

May 12, 2016 4:38 PM

All very true, however, a story cannot be told in isolation. There has to be context. The story must be prepared in a manner in which a narrative can unravel. For example the USA is seen by the rest of the world as the most powerful. From there it is not difficult to ascribe to it the concomitants of Hubris and Arrogance. An array of facts like having the largest prison population (mostly Blacks and Hispanics) of having a barbarous death penalty. Or suggesting that their is no social security, you are on your own, winners and losers. That the People are Obese, That the Police will shoot you dead for a minor traffic violation. That the food is all genetically altered. That their cities are going bankrupt and being left to fall into ruins. That everyone has a gun and is ready to shoot you in an argument. You… Read more »

May 13, 2016 1:18 AM
Reply to  Bruce

Context also requires an audience primed and prepared to receive the story and the story must have a goal or an aim that more or less agrees with and reinforces the context. The connections among the narrator, the audience, the purpose and goals of the story, and the context in which all players and the narrative are set, have many interconnections. Even outsiders play a role in this network, as scapegoats (the “Other”) on which story-tellers and the audience may relieve tensions and frustrations upon, or as dynamic external forces that rejuvenate an exhausted context which then absorb them and use them to create new stories. The problem is to create new stories that can challenge and then change the context. If we accept that the US is powerful, arrogant, corrupt, hyper-individualist and brutal, then the danger is that most people accept that context as “normal”. What we need is… Read more »

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig
May 17, 2016 7:05 PM
Reply to  Bruce

To use a television metaphor, the US has jumped the shark.

Eurasia News Online
Eurasia News Online
May 12, 2016 11:43 AM

Reblogged this on Eurasia News Online.

May 12, 2016 10:59 AM

Reblogged this on EU: Ramshackle Empire.

May 12, 2016 10:56 AM

Reblogged this on TheFlippinTruth.