Obama’s Story (or lack thereof)

If you needed more evidence of modern society’s obsession with storytelling, take a look at this opinion column by Emory psychologist (and brain data-wielding political advisor) Drew Westen.

Westen argues that the failure of Obama’s presidency has been a failure of storytelling.

The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety.

In 2009, many people were trying to help craft a story in this same context. This includes, of course, hip hop artists. Big Boi and Mr. Lif all begin with the same starting point as Drew Westen: a horrible economy and the horrors of war.


Above: Big Boi’s story of Obama as savior from economic catastrophe. Lyrics here.


Above: Mr. Lif’s story of American power and greed, sure to be continued by Obama. Lyrics  here.

Big Boi and Drew Westen (within the hypothetical story he tells in his column) tell pretty much the same story – Obama as savior. While Mr. Lif predicts the continuation of American coporatocracy. If there were more conservative right-wing hip hop artists (and thank God there aren’t) they would have been rapping about Obama as socialist antichrist.

The real point of Westen’s article is that as president, Obama has not defined his story, which has allowed others to define him.  The left (represented by Lif) sees him as as a week-kneed corporate shill, and the right fancies him a corporation-hating commie. Maybe once he’s back in campaign mode he’ll rediscover his gift of narrative.

All I know is that looking back at the U.S. from New Zealand at the moment is fairly depressing. Luckily Big Boi is coming to Auckland soon to save the day.

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