Defending False Narratives

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

We all believe things that are false. After all, none of us is perfect and all-knowing. Life is complex and complicated. In the steady stream of information that bombards each of us every day, there is a lot of truth, but also a lot of error.  Even within the parts that are true, there is a lot of nuance, complexity, and even seeming contradiction that can lead us to incorrect conclusions.   

This complexity and difficulty are seen when trying to determine the cause of an airline crash.  Given the ways these planes are built and maintained, the cause of a crash is rarely one thing.  It is a series of things that occur, any one of which the plane could have survived. Events in life are even more complex, which is why so many questions in history are still open to discussion.  That the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered World War I is clear. What caused World War I is still open to discussion.  

Such discussions occur even in dispassionate settings where participants have little or no vested interest in the outcome. It gets far more difficult when there is a vested interest.  There is no question that slavery was the key issue that led to the Civil War.  Without it, there would be no civil war.  For some Marxists, this was problematic. They have a narrative that sees economics as the driver of human actions. As such, they sought to downplay the issue of slavery to a pretext. For them, the real cause was in the economic differences of the industrial North vs. the agricultural South.

On the other side, some have a narrative that sees slavery as the only cause. The truth is more complex. While slavery was the essential issue in the conflict, not everyone in the North was fighting to end it, and not everyone in the South was fighting to defend it. There were a lot of other factors, such as Union vs. States Rights, to name just one.

When studying history, as a general rule, the farther back in time one goes, the less chance there is for vested interest, and thus a narrative, to interfere. Few today have a vested interest in the conflict between Rome and Carthage, or Athens and Sparta.  As such, it is easier to focus just on what actually happened. The reverse is also true. The closer we get to the present, the harder it is to set aside vested interests and focus on what is happening. Narratives dominate. 

Because of vested interest, much of the news is little more than current events politized into false narratives. What fits is accept. Information that does not quite fit is twisted and distorted to fit. If it cannot be made to fit, it is ignored.  COVID is a great example of this.

Even the name is politicized.  The standard practice leading up to this virus was naming diseases by the location where they were discovered, animal, or physical.  Thus we have Swine flu, Avian flu, West Nile Virus,  Hong Kong flu, and Lyme disease, named after a city in Connecticut, to name just a few.  This practice was not controversial. Thus when COVID-19 first appeared in the city of Wuhan China, it was called the Wuhan flu.  

When Trump started talking about the Wuhan flu and the Chinese virus, his critics applied their narrative that he was a racist. When they did, what had been Trump using the correct name became the latest example of his racism. The narrative must be preserved, so within a very short period, the Wuhan flu not only became COVID-19, but to say otherwise is now racist. This false narrative is now so enforced by the powers that be, that even my grammar checker wants me to change the name of Wuhan flu to COVID-19 or coronavirus. According to my grammar checker, “Phrases like Wuhan flu can encourage bias and misinformation.”  What was standard practice last year is racist this year.  Why?  Trump did it, and the narrative says it must be bad.

Does Lyme disease encourage racism again those who live in Lyme, Connecticut? Are we going to change the name of Lyme Disease? That is an open question.  It depends on whether or not the absurdity of the claim that the name Wuhan flu is racist becomes too apparent.  If it does such that the narrative is challenged, the name for Lyme Disease will be changed to protect the narrative. Those doing so will then congratulate themselves on how enlightened they have become. The people of Lyme, Connecticut, will be able to rest easy, knowing that the burden of racism has been lifted.

This narrative also appears in the issue of the travel restrictions imposed by Trump at the end of January. Predictably, given the narrative, this was condemned by his opponents as racist.  Later that day, Biden said,

“this is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia – hysterical xenophobia – and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.”

It is important to note, as the article reported, that the “science” at that time, i.e., the officials,

“insisted the risk to Americans from the flu-like illness is low. The outbreak has claimed more than 250 lives. None of the U.S. cases have been fatal, and all but one of the patients contracted coronavirus while they were traveling in China.”

Thus the narrative said for Trump to ban flights from China for a low risk was xenophobic.  It would be another month before the majority of people would become concerned about COVID and six weeks until the country was locked down. So at this point, Trump’s actions were seen as a xenophobic overreaction. 

Looking back, the facts cannot be changed, but the narrative must be preserved.  So now, Trump’s travel restrictions, and other actions, are mostly just ignored with the claim that Trump did nothing to stop the virus.  Given the narrative, not too surprisingly, when fact-checked about Biden opposing the travel restrictions saying they were xenophobic, that is fact-checked false.   

It seems that Biden didn’t directly say the travel restrictions were xenophobic. That inference, which was commonly made at the time, came from the fact that Biden’s comment about Trump policy came just after he announced the travel policy.  Silly us for assuming that Biden was talking about xenophobic policies just after policies restricting travel from China were announced. Silly for us for thinking there was a connection.  As for Trump’s policy itself, if mentioned at all, it is now downplayed as not all that effective.

While the narrative is defended, it is still false.  It has to be.  Something like COVID is too complex and complicated to fit a simple narrative like Orangeman bad.  If nothing else, there is still way too much we do not know, and we know a lot more now than we did just a few months ago.  Did Trump get every thing right? Of course not.  No one did.  Trump, the Governors, Republican and Democrat, and health officials are doing the best they can in a very difficult situation where there are a lot of unknowns.

A major problem is that the data is mixed.  Even now, anyone claiming they know for sure what we should have done, or what we should do is fooling themselves and probably following a narrative.  Anyone focused more on blaming opponents than seeking solutions is trying to impose a narrative.  In a few years, we may be able to assess heroes and villains, but not now. If there is a villain now, it is the media trying to force everything into a narrative, rather than giving us the data and letting the chips fall where they may.

This is not to say there is no room for disagreement. There is. Given all the unknowns, there must be.  Should states open or close? Should kids go back to school?  Do masks do any good, or do they make things worse? The data is mixed on these and many other questions.  There is plenty of room for discussion and disagreement. Condemnations and narratives do not help.  Unfortunately, too many people are answering these questions based on narrative and not on the data.  That is a sure way to be wrong.

Jul 21st, 2020

One Comment to 'Defending False Narratives'

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  1. Larry Nixon said,

    Excellent post! The issue I have with the false narratives is the source. Politicians always shaded the truth for the sake of party lines; disagreeable but understandable. In years past, journalists, though biased, spun the facts to create a narrative that allowed debate. Now journalists, who should just recording events, are spinning their own “truths”. The free press is corrupt.

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