Friday, January 22, 2016


So to those on Wall Street who may be listening to my remarks, and I’m sure there are many of them (laughter from the crowd), let me be very clear. Greed is not good. In fact the greed of Wall Street and corporate America is destroying the very fabric of our nation. And here is a New Year’s Resolution that I will keep if elected president. And that is, if Wall Street does not end its greed, we will end it for them.

Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech on Wall Street Reform and Financial Policy. Watching the speech it struck me how often Bernie uses the word “we” where another candidate might choose to use the word “I.”

My opponent says that, as a senator, she told bankers to “cut it out” and end their destructive behavior. But, in my view, establishment politicians are the ones who need to “cut it out.” The reality is that Congress does not regulate Wall Street…(crowd interrupts and chants “Wall Street regulates Congress!”) You got it! And you know what, as President we’re gonna end that reality.

As President we’re gonna end that reality. For more than a decade my political advisor and I have been talking about a paradigm shift in which the United States Presidency could be seen as something more than a singular office occupied by an individual decider. Our dialogue explored the possibility of electing a President who understood the potential of shared governance in addressing the challenges we face. This went far beyond the President seeking counsel from his cabinet on individual issues. I was working on the 2004 Kucinich campaign at the time and our emphasis on volunteer participation got me thinking about what it might be like to have a President who swept into office surrounded not by crony capitalist politicians looking for payback on their electoral investment, but by a group of the nation’s most brilliant minds from disciplines across the spectrum. At the time I was satisfied to imagine this group topping out at around 100 people, a sort of council of elders if you will, but without the minimum age requirement.

This kind of thinking goes way back for me. Growing up watching campaign after campaign, I could simply not believe that the chosen candidates were the best we could come up with (in a nation of over 200 million). I remember wondering why there were not more people who wanted the job? I was not yet aware of all the political machinations that figured into the process of selecting a candidate, but even then it was fairly obvious to me that running for President was a risky proposition. The vicious character attacks made on candidates could quickly and quite definitively end a political career. So then why put all your eggs in one basket to begin with? If one candidate was so terribly fallible, then why not expand the process, not just to multiple candidates, but to multiple people running to hold the office together?

Crazy idea? Maybe – but it gets at something that seems central to me: do we really need a patriarchal savior to keep the whole enterprise going, or can the American people govern themselves? Is our “leader” more qualified to represent our interests than we are? The more I hear candidates try and tap into our passions and frustrations, calling for peoples’ mobilizations and the like, the more I wonder if this hierarchical system we use to funnel our ideas up to our selected leader may itself be creating a lot of the conflict narrative scripts that keep us stuck. The duality of the two party system, the overt opposition to the President himself, etc. If the point of these structures is to be representative of the will of the people then why doesn’t the government actually do what the majority of us want?

But let me rephrase your question because I think, in all due respect, your expression, in all due respect, you’re missing the main point. And the main point in the Congress it’s not that Republicans and Democrats hate each other – that’s a mythology from the media. The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.

The real issue is that in area after area, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, the American people want it. Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, creating 13 million jobs, the American people want it. Pay equity for women, the American people want it. Demanding that the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes, the American people want it. The point is, we have gotta make Congress respond to the needs of the people, not big money interests.

Since the fourth democratic debate (which the above Bernie quote is from), I have read a spate of articles from the mainstream media, who it would seem have only now suddenly become aware that a Senator named Bernie Sanders is running for President. Many of these articles question the viability of running a campaign that aims to mobilize the public beyond the immediate objective of voting for President toward a sustainable involvement in the political process. Perhaps I am being generous here in my phrasing, so consider this quote from one such recent article:

Sanders’s version involves the mobilization of a mass grassroots volunteer army that can depose the special interests. “The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway,” he told Andrew Prokop. “You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.” But Obama did organize passionate volunteers on a massive scale — far broader than anything Sanders has done — and tried to keep his volunteers engaged throughout his presidency. Why would Sanders’s grassroots campaign succeed where Obama’s far larger one failed?

When I wrote my conflict narrative piece I considered including a section about the “polarization” narrative. This is a self-supporting narrative that claims our government is so evenly split on two sides of each and every issue that no matter what the intention, the outcome is and will always be gridlock. The quote above, and the article it is quoted from, start with a tacit acceptance of this narrative.

I don’t buy it.

First, adherence to the polarization narrative is at its essence an argument against the viability of democracy itself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why should I vote for a candidate who can’t win? Why should I support proposals that have no possibility of becoming law? The people rise up and nothing changes, so why should I bother to get involved? Well, the short answer is: because that is how democracy works. The more people who show up and take action, the more representative our democracy is. Congress is not supposed to be a permanent residency. If our representatives don’t represent our interests, then it is up to us to replace them with representatives that do.

Second, drawing this kind of false equivalency between the mobilization around Obama’s campaign and the mobilization inspired by Bernie’s campaign fails to take several things into account.

It presumes that the Obama administration actually had the intention of mobilizing their 13 million volunteers to do more than fund raise and voice generalized support for ‘reform,’ taking their failure to do so as proof that all such mobilizations are ineffectual. It doesn’t consider the impact the demobilzation of OFA (Obama for America / Organizing for America) had on their disillusioned “army” of millennial volunteers, and how that decision relates to the rise of Occupy Wall Street. It certainly doesn’t consider the possibility that OFA (Organizing for Action, as it is called today) may be little more than a marketing campaign to keep us engaged, keep us busy, keep us quiet.

Perhaps most importantly it gives no thought to the clarity of language and purpose that makes the Bernie Sanders mobilization different from what we saw in 2008. During the run up to that election (and even long after), the rallying cry of “hope” and “change” had all but consumed the specific policy positions of Barrack Obama, leaving many of his supporters unclear what they were actually voting for beyond the President himself. This appears quite different from the policy positions that Bernie is happy to discuss at every possible opportunity, specific positions that actually resonate with his supporters because they share them with him.

And that brings me to the third thing: this guy Bernie himself appears quite different than what we have seen before. He calls for a “political revolution” (if you are not quite sure what he means by that – here is a good video to watch) citing specific goals that go beyond winning the Presidency. His unassuming, plain speaking, policy wonk legislative style provides us with a preview of what’s to come. He seems to be a truth teller, utterly disinterested in spinning the media to support any view point that runs counter to the good of the people. He’s got a record of finding common ground and moving legislation forward without giving away the house we all live in to do it. He knows he can’t do it by himself and he’s asking for our help.


That 100 person council of elders I mentioned earlier has expanded over the years, no longer restricted to a few representative experts or exceptional individuals, it encompasses something that sounds kinda like this political revolution that Sanders speaks of. Now, I’m not harboring any illusions that the Presidency is suddenly going to subvert its hierarchical structure in favor of a horizontal organizing model, but I do think it is important to recognize the opportunity here. Populism is perennial in politics, and using the Presidency as a bully pulpit to mobilize the American people in response to a particular policy is not new strategy. What is new here is that this particular mobilization may actually elect a President that is responsive to the mobilization as well...

If you haven’t yet seen Killer Mike’s six part interview with Bernieit is brilliant!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


I’ve made references in other posts about Hollywood movies, and entertainment in general, but I haven’t written a post about a specific film. I recently went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the beautiful Ziegfeld theater. With the language of conflict narrative fresh in my mind I couldn’t help but notice how this film handles its narrative differently than previous Star Wars films. With the new film quite possibly on its way to becoming the top grossing film of all time, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my insights growing up with the films, and my thoughts about how this new J.J. Abrams iteration compares with those of Star Wars creator George Lucas.


A couple things up front. I’m not a Star Wars fanboy (isn’t that right Boba Fett 12" figure standing on my desk?), but I have always been into science fiction (which some claim that Star Wars is not), particularly allegorical sci-fi. I’ve only viewed Force Awakens once. I considered seeing it a second time as research for this post, but I wanted to keep this to my first impressions. That said I did subsequently watch the prequel trilogy again despite its seeming lack of consequence to the recent J.J. Abrams reboot. I was moved to do so because it seems that much of what is so satisfying to the fan base is that there are practically no references to the prequels in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You don’t have to be a hardcore Star Wars fan to know that the prequel films were an enormous disappointment to much of the original trilogy’s fan base.

Not familiar with the chronology of the seven films (go ahead and skip this whole paragraph if you are)? Star Wars, released in 1977, is now referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The following two films The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V) and Return of the Jedi (Episode VI) complete what is commonly referred to as “the original trilogy.” Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is released sixteen years after the original trilogy in 1999, followed by Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. These three films chronicling the origin of Darth Vader and the events leading to the rise of the Galactic Empire are commonly referred to as “the prequels.” The new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh in the series and takes place approximately 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi.

Ok – so let’s get started, as all Star Wars films do, with the opening crawl:

Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke's whereabouts....

The first thing I notice here is that the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion of the original trilogy have been replaced by the First Order and the Resistance respectively.

As a child watching Star Wars for the first time, I don’t think I was particular familiar with the term empire, but I had heard of rebellion in the context of the Revolutionary War in grade school social studies class. Seeing this group of Rebels rise up against an oppressive Empire was a pretty formative moment for me. While I wasn’t quite sure how the fighting had begun, it was pretty evident that the Empire were some bad guys. They had built a weapon that was capable of destroying whole planets, and they used it to destroy Princess Leia’s home world just to demonstrate its power. Now these Rebels on the other hand, they appeared to be quite the ragtag bunch, barely able to keep it together. Watching their tiny Rebel ship completely outclassed by the enormous Star Destroyer in the opening sequence, stormtroopers utterly overwhelming the Rebel soldiers as they board the ship, Darth Vader strangling the Rebel commander with his iron grip – clearly some desperate times. The opening crawl told me there was a civil war, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew that there had been a civil war in the United States, between the North and the South, but it didn’t occur to me that this implied the Empire and the Rebels had once been united in some fashion. And I certainly couldn’t conceive of the stormtroopers evolving from the existing army of that united body. More on that later.

Years later I would hear the term “empire” used in all kinds of contexts from historical colonization, to Reagan’s cold war, to recent wars for oil. And while I may have come to understand that there was more to empire than “evil,” the underlying meaning was there. And of course the antidote to empire? Well that would be rebellion – pretty radical politics for a Saturday matinee serial writ large.

So what do we get from the Force Awakens crawl? The First Order is sinister, instead of Evil (with a capital E). Well maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s more of a shade of gray, yes? And maybe that provides us with a more workable starting point if a galaxy far far away is going to work its shit out ultimately – balance the Force and all that good stuff.

But what is this First Order’s objective? Well they want to find that last Jedi and destroy him! Darth Vader was hot to get Luke on board with the Dark Side so they could rule the Empire together. This First Order doesn’t seem to have any subjects at all, only troops. I couldn’t help but wonder after watching General Hux’s rousing speech to his troops, does an army made up entirely of captured children “raised to do one thing” (Finn) really need a pep rally to get them to raise their fists (raised fists – really? Power to the people.)? Perhaps they just needed a little extra encouragement. When the time comes to test the new mega Death Star, the Order obliterates five planets all at once. I get that they are incapacitating their enemy in a single stroke, but without the prequel provided context of a Republic consisting of thousands of worlds, doesn’t this sequence play out as a mass execution of all the people they could potentially rule? So if not Imperial rule, what exactly is their motivation? We’re not given much to go on beyond some dialogue establishing General Hux and Kylo Ren’s obsession with order and power. Or maybe it’s all just about grandaddy’s melted helmet.

And what of the Resistance? Depicted as the bastard child of the Republic, they are a sort of independent special ops counter to the threat of the First Order. But if the Republic is still the ruling body of the galaxy, then isn’t the First Order also a resistance? Or perhaps this word is reserved only for the good guys? Empire and Rebellion meant something to me as a child watching Star Wars and they were concepts that I could reference later in life, I wonder how the less explicit First Order and Resistance will resonate with a new generation of Star Wars fans. It took three films to destroy democracy (the prequels), and three more to restore freedom (the original trilogy). I’m not sure when they lost it, but I look forward to finding out how they go about “restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.”

I can still clearly recall hearing the theater audience cheer when the 2nd Death Star was destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi. I remember being deeply disturbed by this – hundreds of thousands (over half a million crew on the Death Star itself) killed in a war that was set up as the inevitable clash between the light and dark sides of the Force. What is the take away here as we wander back into the same conflict for a new generation?

The second thing that stood out to me: a stormtrooper with a conscience?

Kylo Ren gives an order to slaughter a group of villagers and a single stormtrooper, FN-2187, disobeys this order. The character appears to be in shock, his helmet marked with the crimson hand print of a fallen comrade. When the order is given he stands perfectly still while other troopers massacre the remaining villagers. We don’t know what is going through his head, is he consciously disobeying the order or is he simply not able to comply? It’s an important moment because in six films we have never seen a stormtrooper (or clone trooper) disobey orders. What is it that keeps him from killing the villagers? Revulsion? Compassion?

Later in the story this same character, now called Finn, tries to convince new found friend Rey to forsake the coming battle and head for the outer rim of the galaxy. Maz Kanata, this iteration’s new wise sage character (a reboot Yoda if you will) tells Finn “I am looking at the eyes of a man who wants to run.” Is this solely about self preservation? How does this square with the earlier scene where Finn disobeys orders? Is he risking his own safety in that scene? Is he being portrayed as a coward? Afraid to kill the villagers, but also too afraid to fight back? And how about now – perhaps Finn is just lacking faith that the Resistance can actually defeat the First Order? Or perhaps he is just trying to keep Rey safe? “You don't know a thing about me, what I’ve seen… we all need to run.” I am intrigued, not because Finn seems to be taking some sort of principled stand against the war, but because he is questioning it at all. Everyone else on the scene seems willing, ready and able to do what must be done.

Things quickly go south as the First Order attacks and Finn defaults to the one thing he has been raised to do (fight), facing off against Riot Control Stormtrooper (yes, that’s a thing). But he is fully drawn back into the conflict when he sees Kylo Ren carrying Rey’s body into his shuttle, Finn’s anger erupting in the way that we have become accustomed to in Star Wars. Luke must save Leia, Anakin must save Padmé, and now Finn must save Rey. The liberating moment has passed when this character might have chosen a different path, he will now do what is necessary, even if that includes killing other conscripted troopers who have not had his awakening.  

The third thing I notice watching Force Awakens is possibly the most challenging to address: the narrative surrounding Rey.

Long before the movie was released Star Wars fans were well aware of the new female lead character Rey. Watching the trailers it became fairly obvious that she was essentially the new Luke, which of course implied that she would also become a Jedi. George Lucas has said on many occasions that the Star Wars saga (the six films together) is the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the dark side and his redemption through his son Luke, but for those of us who grew up watching the original trilogy, the central character is of course Luke Skywalker.

Rey is presented to us as a prodigy, exceptionally good at everything that she does, often to her own surprise (she even speaks Wookiee). This is similar to the way Luke or Anakin are depicted in the previous films, but there is an essential difference in these narratives. Both Luke and Anakin are introduced to the Force through a master, whereas Rey begins using the Force with apparently no training at all. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with having a character discover her power on her own, and it does help the writers avoid a potential patriarchal pitfall having her learn from a male master; it does, however, create some narrative questions for me that I think may prove problematic. Is Rey infallible? Does she, can she, make mistakes/bad decisions?

Again I come back to the moment in Maz Kanata’s castle/cantina when Rey effectively joins the Resistance. What is her motivation here? What is the context of her decision? In the previous films it is the dialogue between master and apprentice/padawan that has provided us with this context. But with that missing here it appears that Rey is essentially going along with the decision that Han Solo has already made for himself. Perhaps this is to show us the implicit trust that she has for Han, but it provides us little insight into Rey’s character when she is making perhaps her most important decision in the film. This may not be an issue for original trilogy fans (who have been there with Han through thick and thin, carbonite and all), but how does this play to a new generation who will be inspired by Rey? Does it allow them to understand why Rey is willing to go to war? Practically two weeks to the day before the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens United States Department of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced the decision to open all combat jobs in the United States military to women.

Star Wars is quite literally filled with characters that go to war at the drop of a hat (it is, after all, called Star WARS), so why does this bother me? Well I think it is primarily because George Lucas has intentionally built a great deal of complexity into his grand myth. He has claimed repeatedly that he made Star Wars primarily with children in mind, going as far as to categorize it as a kind of mythmaking experiment to see how it might affect a generation of youth. With that in mind I have to wonder what, if any, mythmaking J.J. Abrams is engaged in with Force Awakens.

Star Wars warns again and again of the potential downside when good people are stirred to action through emotional response. This is of course central to our understanding of The Force as presented in Lucas’ films. Yoda’s explains to Luke:

Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

Yoda famously clarifies this in The Phantom Menace:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

But then maybe I am reading too much into this. Perhaps this isn’t lazy writing, basing the motivations of new characters almost entirely on the motivations of past characters. Perhaps it is the Force itself that is guiding Rey in her actions.

This brings me to my fourth point: is Star Wars at its essence about one really dysfunctional “royal” family whose problems cost the lives of millions throughout the galaxy?

Wasn’t there something along the way about seeking balance in the force? Why is everyone so hell bent on killing one another? Watching the original trilogy as a child the war seemed unavoidable. Dropped into the middle of it, it felt as reasonable, and vindicating, as a kid fighting back against a schoolyard bully – the quintessential David and Goliath story. But rewatching the prequels recently it became more apparent to me that the wars began as a distraction, a conflict methodically engineered to consolidate power in the hands of the Emperor (Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious).

The clone army of the Republic, activated through emergency powers granted to the Supreme Chancellor (Palpatine at the time) to battle the secessionists (whose leadership was actually a cabal of corporatists, bankers and weapons manufacturers in cahoots with Palpatine), would become the Galactic Empire’s stormtroopers. As a child I was completely unaware that the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was effectively fighting their own army.

This type of conflict narrative manipulation is common throughout the prequels. Queen Amidala, Luke and Leia’s mother, is manipulated by Palpatine (who is a Senator from her planet Naboo at the time) into calling for a vote of no confidence directed at the serving Chancellor, clearing the way for Palpatine to become Chancellor. He does this by creating a crisis on Naboo in which their citizens are under attack and then claiming that the serving Chancellor is beholden to those who are involved in the attack. Anakin Skywalker is also manipulated by Palpatine, claiming that only the dark side of the Force can save his wife (Padmé Amidala) from dying while giving birth, a fate Anakin has foreseen in nightmares. And of course we all know that Vader and Luke are eventually able to work through their conflict, but does this really count as a balancing of the Force or just a rejection of the dark side?

After watching the trailer for the J.J Abrams reboot, I commented to my partner that it looked like the new characters in the film were essentially fanboys (and fangirl in the case of Rey of course), in absolute awe of the heroes we have seen in the past films. Pretty clever in terms of drawing in an audience full of fans that have grown up watching Star Wars, allowing them to vicariously participate through the on screen awe/adoration of these new characters, but how does it play to a younger audience? There is something disturbing about a narrative honoring and celebrating the heroes of the war while simultaneously excising the political machinations that led to the war. What are they fighting for? Does it matter any more?


Related posts on The Missing Point:

Are we courageous enough to face the why?

Related Star Wars articles:
Corruption, Exploitation, and Decay: The Politics of Star Wars
The Empty Politics of ‘Star Wars’
Why Star Wars is a political Force to be reckoned with

In ‘Star Wars,’ politics is always personal
The Personal and the Political in “Star Wars”
Why I don’t care about the new Star Wars film
The Politics Behind the Original “Star Wars”

Friday, January 1, 2016


It has been more than a year since I last posted on The Missing Point, a tumultuous year of rising passions and raised voices. There have been many breakthrough moments, many catalyzed by great suffering and loss. But “our” politicians and media rarely focus on breakthrough moments, choosing instead to present these stories stripped down to dualistic conflicts with little or no context. The resulting narratives, scripted to demand a rush to judgment and an escalation of the conflict, commonly equate dialogue with weakness to effectively lock the participants into a downward spiral. Even if they can individually see past the dualistic narrative, the sheer intensity of the conflict and the defensive posturing it engenders provide an effective barrier to meaningful dialogue.

This idea has come up in post after post on Missing Point, the specific language to define it evolving with each appearance. When I began to recognize the commonality, I used the term filter to reference it as a set of questions to apply to any given narrative. I found myself using these questions, though not in a specifically formulaic manner, to reveal the intent and motivation of those who script such narratives. The first question was generally some form of “who benefits from this narrative?” followed by the question “who benefits from my acceptance of this narrative?” I separate these two because it may not be necessary for the narrative to be accepted for it to be effective. Its very proposal is often enough to constrain the dialogue, which is more often than not the narrative’s underlying intent.

Recognizing these dynamics, and having the language to do so, can empower us to move beyond the scripted duality of picking a side and preparing for battle. I believe this conscious choice to liberate oneself from the constraints of these us against them narratives is a fundamental first step in shifting the society as a whole from a restrictive vision of what we don’t want to a dynamic vision of what we do. To be clear, my ultimate objective in writing this piece is to neutralize this methodology of manipulation and control by providing language to name it, expose it, and reject it. With this in mind I am proposing the widespread adoption and use of the following specific language:

Conflict Narrative – Any dualistic narrative that is employed as a method of manipulation and control in order to minimize, marginalize, and misdirect the legitimate outrage of the people away from those actually responsible for their common oppression.

The primary function of conflict narratives is to seize and secure all space that might otherwise be available for discovery and dialogue through relentless repetition of a single predetermined dualistic narrative. These narratives are scripted as win/lose scenarios, contests for survival, competitions where one side gains only at the expense of the other. Such narratives identify those involved solely through their opposition to one another, effectively silencing their individual voices. With the competition clearly defined, participants are now free to “choose” sides, establishing a shallow sense of belonging and purpose through this essential act of “choosing.” This “choice” between sanctioned options is intended to supplant any personal exploration and experience that might cause deviation from the narrative. The spectacle of impassioned argument from both sides is meant to seduce us into declaring our allegiance, but if we are to break free of these narratives there is one thing we must be clear on:

Those who script conflict narratives do not care which choice we ultimately make. They have provided two “choices” (rather than one) for the sole purpose of seducing us into declaring our allegiance and joining the fray.

Jobs or Environment. Freedom or Security. Democrat or Republican. Coke or Pepsi. Paper or Plastic. Conflict narratives often provide “choices” that are almost identical, but they can be equally effective tools of manipulation when the “choices” are actually different. Apples and Oranges. The phrase is used to reference two objects so completely different that their comparison is all but meaningless. But really though, which is better, Apples or Oranges? If you could eat only one for the rest of your life, which would it be? C’mon, you know you have a favorite! Viewing difference in the frame of conflict, as a contest for dominance, keeps us from realizing the benefit of having multiple options. Oranges may not make for good pie (Damn right – Apple Pie RULES!), but they make excellent marmalade (You got to be kidding – NOBODY eats that garbage!).

When we look back at the root narratives for so called western civilization we find the Greco-Roman hero on a great quest, courageously facing adversity and overcoming obstacles to manifest his destiny. “Choosing” Apples over Oranges may not seem like the stuff of which legends are made, but again, this story isn’t really about “choice,” it’s about the conflict itself. Not the conflict between Apples and Oranges, but between those who “choose” one, and those who “choose” the other.  So you’ve never had a taste for Apples? Not a problem so long as you really, really hate Oranges.

But the exclusivity of our allegiance need not end there. Pears, tangerines, and bananas, all suspect by association. Why would anyone eat those other fruits when they could be eating Apples instead? For that matter, how could anyone wise enough to recognize the clear superiority of Apples even harbor a desire to taste the obviously inferior Oranges? To do so would only show a lack of resolve and serve to ridicule all the great heroes who have sacrificed everything to make Apple their one and only choice.

This is the ultimate objective of the conflict narrative, not simply to discourage alternative experience, but to insure obedience through the systematic substitution of vicarious “experience” in place of first hand experiential knowledge.

It may seem strange that people would be involved with a conflict over things they have no personal experience with, but this dynamic is key to developing deference to, and dependence on, the authority of those who have scripted the conflict narrative in the first place. With no possibility of tracing the manufactured conflict back to their own personal experience, with all context on which to base meaningful dialogue stripped away, those who have been manipulated into joining the fray default to escalating the conflict. It is here that the narrative is most pervasive, where affiliation and identity begin to merge. There is no actual decision requiring thoughtful consideration, there is only the illusion of “choice” and the sense of identity that flows from that construct. This is the conflict narrative in its purest form, the so called “choice” exists as nothing more than a reflexive repetition of the conflict narrative itself.

Ok – so what kind of story would it be without the conflict? Would it be a story at all? English 101 instructs that a story has a beginning, middle, and an end. This is referred to as the three-act structure: Setup (exposition), Confrontation (conflict), and Resolution. Accordingly, the conflict moves the plot forward and fuels the reader’s interest. It is the central feature of the dramatic arc, building tension and leading to the climax of the story. Man against man, man against society, man against nature, man against self – this is our accepted model of narrative structure. No conflict – no story.

The conflict narrative takes this even further. It focuses in on the confrontation with as little attention to setup and resolution as possible, keeping us perpetually trapped inside of it. Hollywood films that feature an enemy that cannot be reasoned with, one that must be stopped at all costs, are big money makers at the box office. The emphasis is on entertainment, pure vicarious spectacle, two solid hours of perpetual conflict requiring no participation from the viewer beyond their passive consent.

So how does this relate to our Apples and Oranges metaphor? Well, this narrative model acts as a basic template for our understanding of the world around us. Instead of seeing Apples and Oranges as just two among a multitude of possibilities, we are likely to insert them into the roles of protagonist and antagonist, our champion and his foe, reflexively imposing a hierarchy on the fruits, making value judgements that set them in opposition to one another. Rather than simply enjoying both fruits, we insist on defining them through their differences relative to one another. We are so culturally conditioned to perceive any pairing as a contest, a competition, a conflict, that we can scarcely even conceive of the pairing as complimentary or simply coexistent. And this pattern, this story as it were, is imbedded in the narrative structure that we use to communicate practically everything.

I recently read a blog post that brought an example of alternative narrative structure to my attention – Kishōtenketsu. From what I understand this is a four-act structure: Introduction, Development, Turn and Reconciliation. The first two acts introduce and develop a situation/idea, the third act introduces a seemingly unrelated situation/idea, and the fourth act serves to connect the two, or to present them in a broader context that allows the reader/audience to make the connections for themselves. While the conflict narrative demands that we use relative difference as a basis for conflict, kishōtenketsu seems more concerned with how it is possible for these differences to coexist, how they may in fact compliment each other. Reconciliation in this context is not make up sex after the fight, it is the realization that seemingly unrelated situations/ideas can (and do) exist in tandem and conjunction among an infinite number of possibilities. The form invites us to consider the relationship between the ideas and how they fit into a larger context. Difference is not presented as a threat to be defended against, something to be converted or eradicated; it is instead presented as an opportunity for reflection and growth.
Survival of the fittest and similar tropes are often cited to encourage and justify our “participation” in conflict narratives. The term, coined by Herbert Spencer (often incorrectly attributed to Charles Darwin), is frequently used in place of Darwin’s natural selection to promote the argument that innovation arises only through competition. In a free market of ideas the best thought wins.

But natural selection is not actually about being the “best” or the strongest, it is at its core about variation and reproduction of that variation. If a new trait enables an organism to survive and reproduce then that trait is passed on to successive generations, becoming more and more common over time. “Survival” in the context of natural selection doesn’t even necessarily equate with longevity, it is simply being around long enough to reproduce. “Fittest” in this context is a reference to how well an organism is suited to the multitude of variables that comprise its existence, not the number of repetitions one can do in the gym. Kind of like a puzzle piece being introduced into an existing puzzle, a tiny variation (resulting from genetic mutation) may improve the fit.

The variation here isn’t a “choice,” nor is it a function of defeating the competition, it just is. But just is doesn’t provide the value judgement necessary to perpetuate the struggle for scarce resources that we have been conditioned to believe in. Just is doesn’t provide a mechanism for control, and its not particularly useful for securing and validating power over others. It needs to be replaced by something more hierarchical – something that frames difference as dangerous, rather than the key to our evolution.

Conflict narratives are employed as divide and conquer strategy to dismiss, disempower and delegitimize social and political movements, to break down existing unity while simultaneously preventing new bonds from emerging. Throughout my years of activist organizing I have seen this dynamic play out again and again, with devastating results. A central focus of my writing on The Missing Point has been to address this dynamic not simply as political strategy, but with the understanding that it is a central tenet of American (as in USA!) cultural identity. The cultural propensity for judgement is visible at all levels of our lives. The punitive nature of our culture has us policing one another at work and at home, in our social circles and political affiliations, in our backyard and around the world. Everything is fair game. What you wear and how you do your hair. What job you do and how well you do it. Where you were born and how you live. What you believe and how you practice... it’s all so endlessly entertaining!

There is something particularly disturbing to me about this. It’s not just the ease with which we are swept up in conflict narratives, but our tacit acceptance of their use throughout our culture. I wonder why we don’t reject wholesale this cynical manipulation, why we don’t simply refuse to “participate.” Perhaps the next time you find yourself reflexively picking a side and preparing for battle, you will ask yourself “who benefits from this narrative?”

Related article:
The significance of plot without conflict by Still Eating Oranges