Putting a bow on the story

The art of persuasion, selling,  winning over, converting, is the art of great storytelling.  We love good stories, live by ’em, we need stories to make sense of a largely incomprehensible universe.   I heard a master storytelling salesman at work the other night at the Democratic Convention, weaving a long, compelling story about his wife.   Former president William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, considered by many our first black president until one with 50% African blood was elected.

“Also considered the finest Republican president of the twentieth century,” said the skeleton.  

“To hear him tell the story, he and his brilliant wife have always been humble servants of the People, selflessly doing everything they could to make sure the tide kept rising and that the rising tide lifted all boats.  He has that down home Elvis charm, calls people ‘man’ and has a deft touch with humor and pathos.  Blacks loved him when he was their president, he spoke their language to them, played the saxophone.  Shucks, he was a charming southern white boy who was completely comfortable with blacks, clearly liked and even admired ’em.

“Meantime, in the name of compromise (and in the worst sense of the word) he did the bidding of some rabidly bad people, over and over again.   Welfare ‘reform’, his 1994 crime bill*, with three strikes and mandatory sentencing, and NAFTA did more to make things harder for blacks than anything Reagan, a president who clucked at racism, had done.  Not to mention the farcical and emblematic “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell”.

“I recall we had a chat about then governor Bill Clinton’s return to Arkansas, during his first presidential campaign, to oversee the execution of some brain damaged killer on death row, a shooter who’d turned his gun on himself and blown most of his brains out without actually dying,” said the skeleton.  “Show them the Times article to refresh their recollection, to tell it to those too young to remember.”

Well, we’ve talked about the psychopath test for president.  You don’t qualify to run for the office unless you demonstrate that, among other things, like lying convincingly, you can kill when needed, for the good of the country, of course. Plus, you have many Americans who believe in an eye for an eye, literally, death for those who kill, and they need to be satisfied that their president will unflinchingly see justice done. 

“Kill whoever you like, if you’re the president, as long as you tell the story properly, or keep the killing properly secret like your current president’s kill list.  Admittedly, sometimes the president has to be willing to kill, but much of the time it hurts more than it helps.  Framing the story of the killing is the most important part, if you do that, kill away, man.  

“You remember on TV we used to see those numbers like insanely lopsided basketball scores, the kill numbers they’d show every night during dinner?   US: 19  Viet Cong: 345.   Low score meant you won.  So piles of dead Vietnamese would be added up, and if any of the dead were males between the ages of 15 and 50, you had dead Viet Cong for the tally.  William Westmoreland and Robert MacNamara’s people came up with that body count system.  Great for morale, it told the story, every night, of our irresistibly mounting victory.  What did you guys yell when unfair teams were chosen: slaughter sides!!!

“How about Agent Orange?  You remember that amazing stuff, defoliant, highly concentrated herbicide, I think it was also called Dioxin.  They called the destruction of jungle and crops ‘Operation Ranch Hand’ — how cool is that?  Spray it from a bunch of airplanes and it dissolves all plant life underneath.  Neat.  Except that it may have killed almost half a million civilians and caused birth defects in probably many more than that, plus what it did to many American boys.   Luckily for us, about half of those Vietnamese killed were males between the age of 15 and 50, like the many terrorists we’re secretly killing today in the president’s brilliant and legally complex drone war.  

“These are the hard calls a president has to make, Elie.  Would Clinton have won that election if he couldn’t go back to Arkansas and sign the death warrant for a severely brain-damaged person’s lethal injection?  He probably would have lost his own state, like Gore would eight years later.”  The skeleton looked around, weary.  

“But, look, you started off talking about telling a story and now we’re talking about psychopath presidents.  You know what telling a good story involves?  Seeing the whole story before you start to tell it and not getting lost in digressions that detract from the story you want to tell.  

“You need to have a good beginning, to hook your listener, an interesting story-line that’s easy to follow and a satisfying pay-off at the end.   The story has to hang together as an organic whole.   People have to know why you told the story and everything you need for people to grasp and digest the story should be explained as you go.  

“You should never have to go back and add something you belatedly realize you’ll need for the punchline.   You need to see the whole picture you want to paint before you lift your brush to start painting.

“Which places you in an unenviable position here, telling my story.  What is my story even about?  I was born in poverty, had certain ideals, worked my ass off, had a certain amount of luck, accumulated enough money that when I died my son could take a year off to write my biography.  What kind of story is that?  

“Hey, I got it, here’s your story: the loser’s son, at the end of the final withered branch of a family tree rather crudely pruned by hate-filled Ukrainians, anti-Semitic Poles, Nazis and Belarusians, in his mad hubris, thinking anyone in the world actually gives a shit about another anonymous loser.  The story could actually be about you, you know, the meta-story, with the story of me kind of floating by in the background, like a hallucination.  

“We see the author sitting in an unbelievably depressing rented one-bedroom apartment, with decaying walls, etc. cracked ceiling, bathroom floor disintegrated.  All around are papers, some beautiful, most not, but a colorful jumble that defies description.  Why is he in his underwear in front of a fan at 2 pm? Is this a mental patient, tapping away as he stares at the computer screen with no expression?”

Point taken, I should put on some pants, although it’s 88.3 degrees in here at the moment.   Here’s the story in a nutshell for you, then.

The cards dealt to you were a daunting hand.  You were born poor, Jewish, at the dawn of the Great Depression, less than twenty years before the organized mass-murder of poor Jews.   The human helplessness that is the birthright of every human being who does not get help was laid heavily on you, over and over.  The small town you grew up in was anti-Semitic.  You wore a jacket with a Jewish star on it because your mother insisted, as only a few years later Hitler would insist all Jews do.  Drafted into the army’s air force in 1942…

“Blah, blah, blah, I don’t see a story here.  No hook.  Next!” said the skeleton in the manner of a distracted record company executive forced to listen to his mother’s friend’s son’s demo.

 “Ha! You remember that, don’t you, you rascal, Robbie’s big break, when Caroline got the A & R guy son of her friend to listen to his cassette.  It was like your letter from that nice girl at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux way back when:  I don’t see the hook.  Robbie learned, eventually, to put the hook way up front.  He told you about the ‘elevator pitch’, right, you’ve got to be able to put the hook into them within a short elevator ride, you have maybe fifteen seconds.”

Yep, yep.  And in fairness to the gatekeepers, everyone thinks they have a book in them, that their life should be a book.  Most books, like most lives, and particularly the imagined but unwritten books of most lives, are dull, stupid, vain, too predictably depressing to be bought and sold.   I have to package you and sell you, simple as that.

“What’s your fucking story?  Give me the angle.  What’s your fucking elevator pitch, bitch?”

I was raised by a brilliant, funny father who was full of self-hatred.   He fought me from the time I was a baby and the fight continued up until the last night of his life.  On that night he told me, for the first time, that he was sorry he’d been….

“Time’s up, bitch, we’re at my floor.  Nice meeting you.  If you want to blow me some time, set it up with my secretary.  Otherwise, have a nice day and most excellent life,” said the skeleton, his face as vacant, inscrutable and mad-looking as Andy’s.

 

NOTES

Again, we’re dealing in a story element, a passing example of how Clinton was the best Republican president in recent history.  For those purposes the 1994 Crime Bill works nicely, it contains some heinous provisions that played a part in increasing American’s off-the-hook, disproportionately poor and black prison population.  But fairness dictates telling the rest of the story, a snippet of which follows, more of which can be read here:

The trend toward increased incarceration began in the early 1970s, and quadrupled in the ensuing four decades. A two-year study by the National Research Council concluded that the increase was historically unprecedented, that the U.S. far outpaced the incarceration rates elsewhere in the world, and that high incarceration rates have disproportionately affected Hispanic and black communities. The report cited policies enacted by officials at all levels that expanded the use of incarceration, largely in response to decades of rising crime.

“In the 1970s, the numbers of arrests and court caseloads increased, and prosecutors and judges became harsher in their charging and sentencing,” the report states. “In the 1980s, convicted defendants became more likely to serve prison time.”

Indeed, this trend continued with tough-on-crime policies through the 1990s as well, but to lay the blame for the incarceration trend entirely, or even mostly, at the feet of the 1994 crime bill ignores the historical trend…

…So while it may go too far to blame the 1994 crime bill for mass incarceration, it did create incentives for states to build prisons and increase sentences, and thereby contributed to increased incarceration.

 

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