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Zambia, Independence Day

NarraTheme

Narratheme was the term used by Edward Saïd to describe memes a culture uses to describe itself, recurring themes that structure the news, for example. In The alternative United States (Monde Diplomatique, March 2003, subscription required), he analyzes US foreign policy in Iraq using narrathemes. He looks at some of the decisions made, and explains the reaction of the public in terms of the image Americans have of themselves, the things they believe to be “right”, the actions that seem “obvious” to them.

  1. The innocent use of the collective we and speaking of our interests pulls people along. As if the government did not have a hidden agenda. As if the government were full of honest people.
  2. Not caring about the past makes it easy to make decisions that conflict with earlier policies. First raising people like Osama Bin Laden (fundamentalists against communists) or Saddam Hussein (dictators against fundamentalists) and then fighting them does not prevent the US from supporting unsavory allies elsewhere in the world. There seems to be no lesson to be learned. Similarly, the enslavement of the African American people, and the near total annihilation of the Native American people, is not reflected in today’s policies.
  3. Every resistance to "our" politics is interpreted as some sort of Anti-Americanism, much like criticizing Israel’s government is often interpreted as Antisemitism. In this context, we Europeans are often reminded of the fact that the US saved our asses twice, as if the Europeans were unable to save themselves. (As an effect of not caring about the past, the exact number of Europeans that died in these wars is ignored.)
  4. The alleged wisdom of US public figures such as Kissinger or members of the current administration (Bush jr., Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle). These people command respect, even though Bush hired two convicted criminals of the Nixon era (Abrams and Poindexter).

This can also be used by special interest groups. Neoliberal reforms are often accompanied by certain narrathemes in the news: The population is unwilling to change or inflexible, there is global competition threatening the workplace, or maybe only a few leaders have the vision to foresee the necessary changes. These memes are injected into news articles and carry a message that goes beyond the individual news item. Such news might be about the chancellor visiting a certain city and talking at a certain conference, and through it all the journalist makes clear that Germany needs more reforms to revive the economy. If this happens on a wide scale, we might call it a narratheme. In this case, the use of such narrathemes is supposed to facilitate further changes in the future, as more and more people believe that their society is “paralyzed” or that taxes are stifling economic activity.


CategoryNarrative

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