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Storytelling à l’Ancienne

Oprah taped the final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” last week. I cannot claim that she helped me raise my children, or that she made my fortune. But she did help me understand American mores, and more recently, American politics. Americans love well-told stories, especially when they do not make sense. When Ms. Winfrey credited a child poet, now deceased, with her decision to continue the taping of her show for five additional years, her audience marveled (at what I do not know), but their marvel translated into Ms Winfrey’s increased popularity and show business success.

Both Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama seem to have developed this knack for actions and statements which fascinate the masses though if done or said by any ordinary person, would be ignored as baffling. Newt, who singlehandedly saved Tiffany & Co. from bankruptcy, if the luxury empire needed a savior, that is, does not conjure a father figure. So, the words below could have easily been his:

“You cannot coddle children,” said Gingrich. “Look at the generations of children since the 1960s. Flower power. Free love. Drugs. The ‘me’ generation. This isn’t about ‘me’ — it’s about ‘us.’ We’ve got to reduce our deficits and our national debt. Having kids listening to iPods and sexting at school is not getting an education. Let them get an education assembling an American-built automobile. Let them listen to their iPods while they’re fixing our bridges and roads. A seven year-old at school drawing pictures of bunny rabbits and cotton candy might be cute to some, but getting a kid working in Goldman Sachs when they’re seven: now that’s what I call cute.”

My grandmother would have said something equally incomprehensible.  She would have been laughed at had she run for president of the local kolkhoz. Newt, far from being dismissed is often viewed as messianic. Never mind the lack of reasoning. His words, like those of other politicians of his ilk, make promises and they are believed.

Barack Obama, too, keeps talking about how we, as a nation, should encourage innovation, imagination, and creativity, so we, as a nation, “can win the future.” He matches his words by joining his predecessor’s brother, Jeb Bush, in celebrating W’s standardized test “achievements.”  Again, words win the day. Though truth be told, Obama’s people seem to be roused by coherently structured sentences, not by any outlandish-sounding mouth-made noise.

New York University Professor, Bernard Manin makes the case that our representative democracy has changed into an audience democracy. Not going into details about his perceptive analysis of the state of our democracy, I would add one comment. Faced with the Americans’ evolving sense of acceptable irrationality, 2012 is shaping as a test of where we stand in our storytelling future, as a nation, whether we need a chief story teller or, whether Oprah’s reruns would be enough to satiate that need.

DANA NEACSU

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