Part III: What Is the (Narrative) Matrix?
Turn on any news channel, listen to the radio, or browse any
mainstream news website, and you will encounter stories. Attend school or college, and you will
encounter a worldview: a narrative of
history and an interpretation of the present moment. Most of these stories are based on
truth. Most of the opinions are coherent
and well thought out. Most of the people
are well-meaning. And at the same time, nearly
all of these stories will support Power.
This is true not because the people telling the stories are evil or part
of some giant conspiracy, but simply because they almost universally are
beneficiaries of Power, and those who benefit from Power will not question
The narrative matrix is a collection of stories and worldviews
that have been carefully sanitized of any effective opposition to Power. It is based in reality, but twisted and
incomplete. And the more that the
effects of Power become obvious in our everyday lives, the more stories which
must be carefully avoided, the more the narrative matrix must distort truth and
generate distraction to avoid confronting Power.
When there is a conflict – and there seem to be many these
days – the narrative matrix ensures that neither opposing viewpoint is a threat
to Power. If the debate is about
healthcare, the two acceptable positions are that we should either continue the
status quo of unaffordable and ever-increasing insurance premiums, or we should
transfer the bill to the government as Medicare for All. The question of exactly why we spend more
than twice as much as other similar nations for comparable care is not allowed
to be asked or addressed. To address
that would be to confront Power, to say that some humans are shamelessly
extracting wealth in exchange for providing an essential public good.
Inside the narrative matrix it is only criminal and newsworthy when a company raises the price of a lifesaving medication by a factor of 50.
Outside the narrative matrix it is criminal and newsworthy
whenever any institution or corporation with a mission of providing care and
saving lives prioritizes profit over providing care and saving lives. Outside the narrative matrix it should not be
possible to amass a fortune by providing essential care or medicine.
Inside the narrative matrix we embrace identity politics, in
pursuit of a more equal society, or else we rebel against them in pursuit of
“traditional values.” We focus on
persistent bias that remains from the time when Power utilized race and gender
as important distinctions, and on the identity-based inequalities that are
still with us. We note with chagrin that
for every dollar a woman makes on average, a man makes $1.23. For every dollar a Black person takes home, a
white person takes home $1.43. We seek
to stomp out remaining racist attitudes and to provide preferential
opportunities to marginalized populations to reduce these inequalities, and we
note with some pride that we have been making progress in terms of reducing
inequalities along these lines over time.
Outside the narrative matrix this is still important, but it
too often serves as a distraction from the inequalities that are rapidly expanding in our current
moment. For every dollar a grocery store
cashier makes, an accountant makes $3, a doctor makes $8, a typical CEO makes
$32, and Jeff Bezos sees his wealth increase by 2.5 million dollars. So long as we need cashiers, shelf
stockers, meat packers, apple pickers, and janitors for a functioning society,
the people performing these roles deserve to be paid enough to survive and
Inside the narrative matrix any attempt to address this
excessive and ever-growing income inequality is met with howls of SOCIALISM!
Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that
in 1950, working class jobs paid a living wage and a factory worker could
easily afford to buy a home and see a doctor, and the US was most definitely
not a socialist county in 1950. We could
take steps to return to that more reasonable level of wealth inequality while
preserving a market economy.
Inside the narrative matrix we are told that racism is our
nation’s original sin, that we must all acknowledge our biases, and that by
stomping out racism and other forms of oppression we will achieve a better
world for all.
Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that a world in which billionaires are proportionally Black, Latino, and LGBTQ while half of Americans – with all identities proportionally represented – still barely scrape by is not the victory we are seeking. It is equally apparent that preferentially offering winning lottery tickets (e.g. scholarships, college admissions, hiring decisions) to impoverished people of marginalized identities is a great way to stoke anger among impoverished people who do not have marginalized identities, and that fueling this anger is a great way to prevent confrontation with Power.
Inside the narrative matrix the best way to help marginalized
people is to fight discrimination.
Outside the narrative matrix the best way to help
marginalized people is to eliminate poverty.
That’s not to say fighting discrimination isn’t important, but it is
small solace to hear fewer racial slurs if you still can’t afford rent.
Inside the narrative matrix it is very important to believe
that race and other identities are the primary basis of human oppression. To suggest otherwise is to fail to “center”
Outside the narrative matrix it is becoming clear that Power
no longer depends on racism or other identity-based oppressions. Neoliberal economics alone now ensures that
the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and those who have Power would
much rather throw down some ladders for a select few marginalized people to
climb than face the collapse of their towers.
Inside the narrative matrix neoliberal economics is
carefully defined as natural law, like gravity or magnetism. A free market determines prices and wages,
and those prices and wages are by definition fair and good, and any attempt to
manipulate those prices and wages is TERRIBLE SOCIALISM.
Outside the narrative matrix it is eminently clear that neoliberal economics is entirely a product of human decisions and that the humans making those decisions are the ones with Power. It is equally clear that making different decisions could greatly improve quality of life for a majority of people. And making different decisions does not require embracing socialism or communism with their associated failings. This “slippery slope” argument is a complete logical fallacy.
Inside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a plague of
unprecedented severity which must dominate the news cycle, disrupt society, and
inflame preexisting fault lines to the greatest possible degree for an
indefinite and ever-extending period of time.
Outside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a pandemic with an
expected severity recurrence interval of 50-ish years that has the potential to
kill one to perhaps three out of every thousand people. A healthy society would choose to either
suppress it effectively if possible (a la New Zealand) or else allow it to
spread with protections for the most vulnerable (a la Sweden). The US response has combined the worst of
societal disruptions with very little effective control of disease spread,
thereby generating a double-whammy that generates continual fear and suffering
and distracts people from confronting Power.
It’s worth noting that a much worse pandemic in 1918 was officially
ignored (never mentioned by then-President Wilson) at a time when the Power
narrative was focused on proving the US as a world power in WWI and the virus
was an unwelcome distraction.
Inside the narrative matrix we debate how to handle illegal
immigration. One side prefers compassion
and amnesty while the other fears job competition and cultural change.
Outside the narrative matrix it seems strange that these
human beings only become worthy of our attention or compassion when they
succeed against harrowing odds in crossing our border. It becomes equally clear that US foreign
policy and imperialism are in many ways responsible for grinding poverty and
political instability across the global south, and that perhaps the best
solution is to confront that Power and invest our resources in helping these
nations to thrive, so that their citizens do not arrive penniless at our
borders begging for menial work.
Inside the narrative matrix we support drone strikes and geostrategic
pre-emptive wars in the name of “national security” and the “war on terror,”
and we praise the politicians and pundits who promote them.
Outside the narrative matrix the reality of these wars
entails around 30,000 bombs dropped every year, leading to thousands upon
thousands of civilian deaths and lifelong injuries, and thousands of
newly-aggrieved families lending support and donations to terrorist
Inside the narrative matrix Yemen is never mentioned and
might as well be on another planet.
Outside the narrative matrix Yemen is probably the single worst humanitarian disaster on Earth at the moment, with 24 million people facing starvation or a lack of basic needs, and the US has the power to end it by confronting our “ally” Saudi Arabia. But we don’t because allying with Saudi Arabia serves Power.
Inside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard is a discredited and
forgotten also-ran who is friendly with brutal dictators, has made homophobic
remarks, embraces a strange cult-like
religion, and might even have been groomed by Russian agents to run as a third
Outside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard was a rising star
in the Democratic Party until she dared to confront Power, returning from her
military tours with a dubious assessment of our eternal “regime change wars”
and promising “a government of, for, and by the people, not a government of,
for, and by the rich and powerful.”
Rather than giving airtime to her views on government and foreign
policy, the narrative matrix published a series of distortions and hit pieces
and effectively silenced her. This is
how Power eliminates dissent, and no one is immune to these sorts of
half-truth, out-of-context, discrediting attacks that sidestep the important
issues to render the messenger persona
Inside the narrative matrix we are in the midst of a fight
for the soul of our nation between “liberal” Democrats and “conservative”
Republicans. We are divided so bitterly
along these ideological lines that we can no longer feel empathy for the other
side, and we dread sullen Thanksgiving dinners with not-quite-disowned family.
Outside the narrative matrix it is apparent that both
Democrats and Republicans serve Power and that the policies offered by both
sides have been carefully scrubbed of any real threat to Power. At the same time, it is oppression by Power
–corporatizing, offshoring, union-busting, labor devaluing, money-grabbing,
rent raising, debt creating Power– that is directly generating the suffering
and anger which must be funneled into the culture wars – wars that can have no
victor because the blame is misplaced and the suffering will continue no matter
which party wins.
Inside the narrative matrix we just had a Very Important
Election, and depending on your perspective we either rejected racism and
fascism while evicting a narcissistic bully or else sold out Main Street and
rural America to government bureaucracy and morally bankrupt urban values.
Outside the narrative matrix we just had an election between
two Agent Smiths. One represented
comfort, status quo, stability, pretense that everything will be OK if we just
make a few minor tweaks. The other was a
talented narrative manipulator who reached out to those harmed by Power and
offered them not actual empowerment but association with an image of wealth and
a myth of national greatness; who offered his supporters a collection of
scapegoats, of disempowered people somehow responsible for their misery. The latter might be more dangerous to the
fabric of society, but neither will confront Power and both will bluster about
improving quality of life while supporting policies that actively decrease
quality of life for a majority of people.
Inside the narrative matrix we fear the Other Party,
COVID-19, and those few rogue nations which have not capitulated to the
US-centered world order: Russia, China,
Iran, North Korea.
Outside the narrative matrix those concerns appear small
alongside the specters of nuclear war, resource limits, climate change, mass
extinction, US-sponsored military violence, ignored humanitarian crises, and
the ongoing immoral extraction of wealth from the vast majority of humanity in
service of Power.
This is the narrative matrix. The reality we are offered. The lenses we are given to interpret that
reality. The stories we are told and not
told. The statistics that are gathered
and not gathered, cited and not cited.
The ways in which we are sold a world where most of us see the fruits of
our labor accrue to others, to Power, and yet remain indifferent. The changes we believe are possible and the
changes we do not even consider. The
ideas we are taught about what it means to succeed, to be a good person.
The narrative matrix serves Power. It does not serve us. It does not serve humanity. It most certainly does not serve the
biosphere or planet Earth.
It is time to step out of these stories.
It is time to escape from the narrative matrix.