PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: The Power of the Preferred Narrative

(My River Reporter column for February; it’ll be published in the Feb. 10 issue…)

The ink had barely dried, so to speak, on last month’s column before events offered a textbook example illustrating the power of the “preferred narratives” about which I had written. On Saturday, January 8, just a couple of days after I had submitted the column for publication, a young man walked into a crowd at a shopping center in Tucson and opened fire – shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in the head, wounding many others, and killing six.

Immediately, the air was filled with speculation: Who was the shooter? Was he a right-wing gun maniac, bent on assassinating a Democratic legislator? Was he an Islamic terrorist staging a suicide mission? Was he an undocumented Mexican criminal? Or was he a left-wing loony, going after a conservative Blue Dog?

Or in other words: whose preferred narrative would gain credibility from this incident?

The identity of the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was soon revealed, and the “paper trail” that he had left behind was scoured for clues about his motivations. It quickly became obvious that Loughner was mentally disturbed, deeply so in fact – but that didn’t stop folks from trying to shoehorn his action, and his personality, into the parameters of their own favorite narratives.

A leftist blogger posted the following: “Jared Loughner is of course being painted by the media as an apolitical, off-his-beam individual with serious anger issues. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that the corporate-owned media would want to distance its pro-capitalist, anti-regulation support base on the right from the homicidal likes of Mr. Loughner. That perhaps his main source of news was Fox News and that he was a Glenn Beck fan is not exactly good PR for the conservative movement in America!” ( Video blogger Cenk Uygur of “The Young Turks” cited Loughner’s anti-government positions to maintain that he was more in line with conservatives. (

For their part, conservative commentators soon latched onto the mention of “The Communist Manifesto” among Loughner’s favorite books, as well as reports that Loughner had smoked marijuana, as evidence that in fact the assassin was a leftist radical. “Liberal Smear Machine Backfires After Gunman Found To Be Occultist, Pot-Smoking Left Winger,” read a headline on one story. “Now Official: Arizona Shooter Jared Loughner A Bush-Hating Liberal,” said another. (Search on those phrases to find examples; both have been widely reposted.)

Then the narratives expanded their focus. An online campaign ad used by Sarah Palin during the recent Congressional elections, which featured a map showing rifle-sight crosshairs “targeting” several districts (including, by the way, Pennsylvania’s Tenth District), was cited by liberal commentators as a possible influence in the shooting. The offending graphic was quickly pulled from Palin’s website, and then Palin went on the attack herself, accusing journalists of perpetrating a “blood libel” against her… a phrase which, of course, evoked much older narratives than she had perhaps intended!

The tug-of-war continues – and probably will keep going. Liberals and conservatives can both point to histories of violent rhetoric from the other side. (Here’s such a history from the liberal perspective: – and one from the conservative:

I have to admit, though, that in MY preferred narrative, it’s the conservative movement that places more value and emphasis on the use of force to achieve political ends. (I mean, we liberals and progressives are all wussy “Kumbaya” types, right?) But note: that’s my preferred narrative. Like most folks, I suspect, I want to think that mine is the side of the angels, the side of innocent victims standing up against stronger and more brutal oppressors, the side that knows and defends the truth. It’s comforting, sure… all such narratives are; so comforting, in fact, that people will fight and even kill to defend them. But they are also blinding, and most likely incomplete. No one can move beyond their preferred narrative, however, no one can resist its power, until they first become aware that they have one, and willing to accept the possibility that it may not be telling the whole story.


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