Spinning Yarns

I’ve been noticing the word narrative in the news a lot. Taken at face value, narrative means a particular interpretation or version of a story.

More cynically, narrative is an artful way of saying “spin” — i.e., a PR-driven tangled web of information, persuasion, manipulation and deception.

Ever since great ships took to sea, sailors on long voyages would spin yarns — tell long, often fantastical tales. Other than storms, pirates, or whales, the only breaks in the monotony at sea might be singing shanties or carving scrimshaw from whale’s teeth. A good yarn spinner was a valuable mate on board. Accuracy wasn’t important in spinning a yarn; the longer and more imaginative, the better.

William Safire defined the current meaning of spin as a “‘twist,’ or ‘interpretation’; when a pitcher puts a spin on a baseball, he causes it to curve, and when we put our own spin on a story, we angle it to suit our predilections or interests.”

Safire compared spin to a German and Yiddish expression: kop-fardreyer — “literally ‘head turner,’ metaphorically ‘mind twister.’”

When Safire told his future father-in-law that he worked in public-relations, he explained that his job was to modify people’s “attitudes … at the introduction of persuasive arguments.” His father-in-law-to-be “smacked his head and nodded ruefully, ‘a Kopf-verdreher.’”

There’s an old proverb: “If a fish stinks, it stinks from the head.” So, to see spin in action, let’s start at the top.

After the Democratic debacle of the midterm elections, President Obama took the blame for his party’s political defeat. “I think there are times … where … we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we’re trying to do and why this is the right direction. … So there is a failure of politics there that we’ve got to improve on.”

He went on to say, “I think that one thing that I do need to constantly remind myself and my team of is, it’s not enough just to build a better mousetrap. People don’t automatically come beating to your door. We’ve got to sell it.”

During his own re-election campaign, President Obama told an interviewer:

“The mistake of my first term … was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

Let’s play that back:

“But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people …” [emphasis mine].

That seems to mean that it is the job of the president of the United States to make up a story to inspire the people.

The truth of that story may be irrelevant. The story could be purely speculative fiction — “a catch-all term meant to inclusively span the breadth of fantastic literature, encompassing literature ranging from hard science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to horror to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern myth-making …” (Speculative Literature Foundation).

In other words, the job of the president is “modern myth-making.”

That calls to mind an election-year Walt Kelly cartoon (The Pogo Party, 1956.)

“If you wants to git elected you gotta think up somethin’ to say after you is in office so’s history books’ll have a big memorable homily to pester kids into memorizin’ even if they don’t know why you said it. …”

NOTE: This is a non-partisan column. It is not an endorsement of — nor endorsed by – any elected official, candidate, political party or PAC, nor of their supporters or opposition.

My interest is in language, not politics. The verbal abusage I’m talking about is endemic to politicians of all parties and persuasions. It comes with the territory. I pick on the president’s words only because they are a perfect specimen of a verbal virus that infects information systems and wipes out memory and meaning.

Less eloquent, but more memorable, was President Richard Nixon’s assertion: “I am not a crook!”

Al Capone, who was a crook, had more style. When the police grilled him about bootlegging in Canada, Capone responded,

Canada?! I don’t even know what street that’s on!”

Okay, Schiller, why are you so worked up? This is old news. In 1946, George Orwell wrote, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. … Politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

Today, however, I fear even Orwell might agree something has changed. And not for the better.

Continued next issue: “Spinning Yarns,” Part 2


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.