It's Important to Know How the Stories We Tell Ourselves -- True, or Not-- Shape our World... for Better or Worse
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So where are we in the Iran narrative?
I mean no disrespect to the victims of Iran’s terrorist clients, or the existential fears of Israelis and world Jewry, or U.S. security interests in the Middle East by calling it a narrative. Real events do happen in the real world, but people can’t help trying to fit them into larger stories. We love to connect the dots. Storytelling isn’t some atavistic remnant of our pre-scientific past; it’s how our brains are hardwired.
Today, with the advantage of hindsight, a reasonably explanatory Iran narrative would connect these dots: In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalizes the British-owned oil industry. In 1953, Mossadegh is ousted in a coup arranged by the CIA and MI6, and we put the Shah on the throne. In 1979, he – and we – were thrown out by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Shia revolutionaries, and it’s been ugly between us and them ever since. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad never denied his desire to see Israel annihilated, which made it especially scary that he was barreling toward a nuclear bomb. But our sanctions hurt Iran. He was thrown out, and Iran got a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who sent Jews Rosh Hashanah greetings. He said he would come to the table, and now there’s a deal.
Good deal, or bad deal? Here’s where hindsight fails us. We don’t know the ending of the story yet. So we have to figure out a way to tell the story going forward without knowing whether Geneva will be the coffin nail in Israel’s security, or if it will be more like the destruction of Syrian weapons, a sign that talk can sometimes be at least as effective as, and always less costly than, military action.
There’s no question facts will play a part in how we rate the deal, but there’s too much input bombarding us to process as data. What will win the day isn’t the power of facts, but the power of one story or another to feel right – yes, an emotion; we will retroactively find the facts we need to make our path to that feeling seem rational.
The public sphere is where competing storylines slug their way out, it’s where politicians, journalists, experts and yakkers connect the dots, find patterns and fashion narratives. We take all that in, spoiler-free, in a state of genre-blindness, not knowing whether we’re watching a tragedy or an adventure play out.
This process is often accused of being powered by political ideology, moral bias, religious dogma or personal psychology, and all that may be true to some degree, but I think the underestimated driver is our innate need for narrative. Once upon a time isn’t kid stuff; it’s species stuff.
However, stories that feel right may be clueless about reality. We are chronically required to revise the patterns we see in the past because we’re forced to absorb history’s hairpin turns. At any given moment, there’s a fair chance that the stories we tell ourselves about the world are goofy.
My first job after graduate school was at the Aspen Institute, which was then deep into a relationship with the Shah of Iran and his wife, Empress Farah Dibah. In September 1975, their Pahlavi Foundation’s generosity enabled Aspen to invite more than 100 guests to a week at the Aspen Institute/Persepolis Symposium, with trips to Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran, during which the Shah showed off his reforms and the richness of Iranian cultural history. The Institute reciprocated by inviting the Shabanou to Aspen, where she (and I, a peon) attended a trout fry on the Roaring Fork River under the eye of SAVAK sharpshooters. Locals nicknamed her the Shah Bunny.